New-look Vikings’ O-line is cruising

Published 9:05 pm Wednesday, October 25, 2017

EDEN PRAIRIE — By far the biggest concern about the Minnesota Vikings at the beginning of this season has been alleviated for now, with a stout performance by the once-beleaguered offensive line.

The new look for this group has sure gone over well. Staying relatively healthy was a good start.

“They’re just solid in everything they do,” coach Mike Zimmer said.

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The improvement has been almost staggering, though with an entirely new lineup it’s hardly fair to compare this season with the debacle in 2016 that included eight starting combinations. The quarterbacks have been sacked nine times, the fourth-lowest total in the league. The Vikings are also tied for the NFL lead with 33 plays that gained 20 or more yards. Nine of those were runs, which ranks second in the league.

“Great guys. Great room,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “They’re all really invested in what we’re doing, which is really cool.”

Keenum has gone the last 2½ games without being taken down behind the line of scrimmage.

“We’re not worried about whoever is back there,” right tackle Mike Remmers said. “We’re just doing the best we possibly can and blocking as long as we possibly can.”

Against a dangerous Baltimore defense, the offensive line had its best collective game yet on Sunday. Left tackle Riley Reiff was forced out in the third quarter with a knee injury. Left guard Jeremiah Sirles, making his second straight start for Nick Easton (calf), departed in the second quarter with a knee injury. But Rashod Hill (for Reiff) and rookie Danny Isidora (for Sirles) stepped in seamlessly as Latavius Murray rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown. Several players remarked they didn’t notice Reiff was missing right away.

“It’s fun to see the back of his jersey running away from us,” right guard Joe Berger said.

The key to success, other than so far mostly dodging the injury bug that especially hit the tackles hard last season, was putting a more mobile starting five on the field to match the shift toward a zone blocking that puts an emphasis on fast feet and smart reads.

With rookie center Pat Elflein quickly settling in and free agents Reiff and Remmers providing stability in their spots, a team that ranked last in rushing last year has been markedly better on the ground. The Vikings are tied for eighth in the NFL this season.

“When the offensive line puts a hat on their guy and gets me to the second level, that’s the best feeling in the world for a back,” Murray said. “Because that’s all you can ask for, and the rest is up to you.”

The downfield passing game, made possible by better protection from the rush, has also experienced a renaissance.

“They continue to give us a chance,” Murray said, “whether it’s throwing the ball downfield or the running backs running the ball.”

Reiff and Sirles were both held out of practice Wednesday, the team’s last workout at Winter Park before an evening flight across the Atlantic. They’ll have three full days to adjust to the time difference and prepare for the Browns (0-7), before kickoff at Twickenham Stadium on Sunday.

“Try to do the best we can and figure it out,” Zimmer said of the potential challenges of playing overseas. “We’re not the only team that has done it. It’s been going on for years now.”

Easton took part in practice on a limited basis, as did cornerback Mackensie Alexander (hip) and wide receivers Stefon Diggs (groin/ankle) and Michael Floyd (hamstring), all of whom did not play against the Ravens. Diggs has missed two games in a row. Zimmer said he believes there’s a good chance many of the players who missed the last game will be back for the Browns.

That likely won’t include quarterback Sam Bradford, who has not practiced in nearly three weeks. Zimmer said Bradford would travel to London, as would Teddy Bridgewater, but Keenum is clearly the front-runner for the job again this week.

Zimmer smiled and slyly said “we’ll see,” as is his tendency, when asked if Keenum would start. Keenum, for what it’s worth, was listed as limited in practice Wednesday with a previously unreported chest injury. But rookie Kyle Sloter has never taken a regular-season snap in the NFL, and Bridgewater has only been practicing for a week following the 14-month recovery from his knee injury.

Zimmer said the medical staff will determine when he will be activated from the physically unable to perform list, which could happen anytime in the next two weeks.