The Vikings 2016 season was derailed when they lost two of their starting offensive linemen in Matt Kalil, who made two starts and then was lost for the season, and Andre Smith, who was injured in Week 4 and never returned.
That’s what led to the Vikings giving up 38 sacks last season, the 10th-highest number in the NFL.
Now with the loss of running back Dalvin Cook, and quarterback Sam Bradford being a question mark until game time, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer expects the offensive line to carry a big load to help the offense score enough points to win each week.
Zimmer did say that if Case Keenum starts, he has done a nice job handling the starting quarterback role, but the team is excited about getting Bradford back in there whenever he is healthy. I don't believe Bradford will play Monday night at Chicago.
So far this season the Vikings line has done a great job of protecting both Bradford and Keenum, allowing just five sacks in four games, which is tied for the sixth-best mark in the NFL.
“We have a bunch of good guys in that room,” Zimmer said. “[Offensive line coach] Tony Sparano does a great job with the offensive line. They work together, tough guys, gritty, physical, smart guys — that is always a good thing.”
The big surprise this season has been the play of third-round draft choice Pat Elflein, out of Ohio State, who has taken over the most difficult spot on the offensive line at center and done a tremendous job as the first rookie to start at that spot for the Vikings since Mick Tingelhoff in 1962.
“Pat has done very well,” Zimmer said. “He’s a very good athlete, he’s strong, good low center of his body, low center of gravity, and then he does a good job making communication calls and, really, those five guys are on top of it.”
Replacing Cook a challenge
While Elflein has been stellar, there’s no question that the breakout rookie this season was Cook, the second-round pick who was the No. 2 rusher in the NFC with 354 yards on 74 carries and two scores before being injured last week with an ACL tear.
Zimmer said that replacing Cook is going to be a team effort, with free-agent signee Latavius Murray and fourth-year running back Jerick McKinnon.
“It’s hard to replace a guy with his talent, his ability,” Zimmer said about Cook. “We’ll have to do a little bit by committee. We’re going to have to find some more ways to move the football. We don’t care how we move it, we just have to move it. The run game was strong for us. I think Latavius will do a good job and Jerick will do a good job.
“Those two guys are going to end up carrying the load. We’re going to have to use them to their strengths, very similar to what we did with Cook. But you know our offensive line is still a strength. They’ve been playing well, and that will be a big part of it.”
Can’t underestimate Chicago
Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen, who had five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss in the Vikings’ shocking 20-10 loss at Soldier Field last season, said the team knows better than to overlook the Bears this week.
“It didn’t turn out like we wanted it to [last season],” he said. “[We’ve got to] correct the errors and figure out what we have to do right to win the game.
“We’ve got to go in against Chicago with full steam and the attitude that we need to win this game. It’s a divisional game, a big game. Chicago, you can never underestimate any team in the National Football League. We’ve got to dominate them in all three phases, win the turnover battle, tackle better, score more touchdowns. We’ve just got to do it on a high level in all three phases.”
Zimmer added that the team’s two losses have come with a lot of mental mistakes — 11 penalties in their loss to Pittsburgh and three fumbles against Detroit last week.
“We didn’t play well enough; especially against Pittsburgh we put ourselves in a hole early,” he said. “But the Detroit game — they’re a good football team and you can’t turn the ball over that way and expect to beat that kind of team. We’re going to continue working on the things we do good and working on the mistakes we made.”
Bears defense a surprise
The Bears have the ninth-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing 306.2 yards per game, which bests the Vikings’ mark of 318.0 per game, 12th in the NFL.
Zimmer said the Bears bring a big challenge to his offense this week.
“Chicago has a very physical defensive front,” he said. “Very good in the back end, very good in the run game, and they ran the ball good against us. They have a new quarterback coming in and they’ll have a night game, the fans will be excited, and it’s us against them.”
Yes, the play of rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky is going to be under a lot of scrutiny, but Keenum said that he knows the Bears will bring a big task to either him or Bradford.
“Their front is going to be a challenge,” he said. “They not only play the run very well but they rush the passer very well. The back end, they play a bunch of guys, but they’re all in the right spot at the right time. It’s another thing I’m going to have to stay with my keys and have my eyes in the right place because they do a good job of disguising and throwing things off.”
• NBA.com released its surveys from all 30 general managers. The Timberwolves were predicted as the fifth-best team in the Western Conference. Karl-Anthony Towns was voted as the most likely player to have a breakout season, while Andrew Wiggins was voted fifth. Towns was voted as the best center in the NBA. The Wolves were picked third for having made the best offseason moves, with Jimmy Butler being ranked second for biggest acquisition. And the Wolves were voted as the most likely team to improve.
• The Lynx, in their championship-clinching game over the Los Angeles Sparks in front of a capacity crowd Wednesday at Williams Arena, appeared to outdraw the Gophers in any contest in the past 10 years. Scalpers were getting up to $100 on tickets outside the building. ESPN reported that the TV numbers were the highest for a WNBA Finals game since 2003.
• Talk about draft choices, Kansas City traded the Vikings the No. 104, No. 132 and No. 245 picks in last year’s draft for the right to the Vikings’ No. 86 pick, which they used to grab Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, who is a breakout star, with an NFL-best 502 rushing yards along with 157 receiving yards. His six touchdowns are the second-most in the league.
• The Vikings have lost five of their past seven games with the Lions, who from 2000 to 2010 had lost 20 of 22 in the series.
• Twins hitting coach James Rowson was the Yankees’ minor league hitting coach last year and was given a lot of credit for the improvement in their young hitters. And he can take the same credit with the young Twins stars this year.
• Word out of Detroit is former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will be interviewed for the Tigers opening.
• The Twins and Yankees received about 90 percent of the gate receipts of the wild-card playoff game at Yankee Stadium. That would give each player and the coaches between $18,000 and $20,000.
• Count on former Twins star first baseman Justin Morneau to rejoin the team next year as a special assistant, working in both public relations and helping out as coach in spring training.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org