Entering the 2006 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings were certain about two things regarding their offensive line. One was that the line would look dramatically different from that which finished the 2005 NFL season, with Matt Birk returning, Artis Hicks, and Steve Hutchinson arriving, Chris Liewinski and Adam Goldberg released, and Mike Rosenthal demoted to hope-we-never-need-to-use-him status.
The other certainty regarding the Vikings' offensive line in 2006 was that it would be a work in progress. After one game, it is clear that there is much work left to do.
Among the most glaring problems facing the Vikings' offensive line this year is the continuing inability of those on the right side of the line to block in the running game. The problem already has reached such proportions that even the Vikings' coaching staff appears unconvinced that the right side of the line is even worth trying to run behind.
Of the Vikings' thirty-two running plays against Washington, twenty were to the left side of the line, two were up the middle, and ten were to the right. Of the ten running plays to the right, only two came before halftime, compared to nine running plays to the left or up the middle in the first half.
Evident from the first-half statistics is the Vikings' coaching staff's own trepidation about sending a back right rather than left. That trepidation was evidenced not only in the first half of Monday's game, but also--and perhaps more telling--on the Vikings' final offensive series. Despite the fact that everyone in the stadium expected the Vikings to continue to run left, the Vikings ran left.
The reason for the early game and late-game decision to stay left is apparent from the numbers. Last year, the Vikings routinely failed to move the ball running right. When they attempted to do so against Washington on Monday night, they again failed.
On ten running plays to the right on Monday, the Vikings averaged 2.6 yards with a long of eight, seven carries for three or fewer yards, and four carries for one yard or less.
One might conclude that the Vikings' woes running right were simply a matter of a small sample and that, with more attempts, the Vikings will improve their right-running average. So far, however, there is little reason to view Monday's performance as a probable aberration over the course of the season as the right side of the Vikings' offensive line has simply not moved defenders off the line the way that the left side of the line has, at times.
Equally problematic is the domino effect that an inability to run right has for the rest of the offense. Because the Vikings are unable to run right, they are forced to run left more often. Opposing teams realize this and stack the defense over the left side of the Vikings' offensive line in run situations. This makes McKinnie, Hutchinson, and Birk less effective than they would be were the defense required to play the offense straight up.
But an inability to run right also has a negative effect on the Vikings' passing game. With teams loading up against the run to the left and the Vikings' inability to take advantage of what subsequently should be mismatches to the right, the Vikings are forced to pass more than they would like and more than they ought to. That, too, makes defending the Vikings easier and makes controlling field possession and the clock more difficult for the Vikings.
The continuing run-blocking troubles on the right side of the line should not serve to mask the very real improvement that the Vikings' offensive line has shown over last season. Despite two false starts--one by Artis Hicks, the other by Bryant McKinnie--the line looked uniformly solid in pass protection. In part, that's a reflection of Brad Johnson releasing the ball quickly in the West Coast offense. But it is also a sign of maturation for players like Marcus Johnson and Bryant McKinnie, both of whom looked like a revolving door at times last season.
Unquestionably, the presence of Birk and Hutchinson forces teams to play the Vikings' offensive line more honestly--something that could not be said of last year's patchwork offensive lines. But that only points out even more the necessity for continuity and production across the entire offensive line.
Good health and increased familiarity with the system and each other should help the Vikings' offensive line progress. But not every player brings the same abilities to the game. And that latter fact might continue to haunt the Vikings' running game and, as a consequence, their offense, no matter how much time the current linemen spend together.
Up Next: Will Panthers be the First Team to 0-2 in 2006?