Hartman: Vikings pass protection needs to improve

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2014 - 12:18 AM
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Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was sacked by the Raiders’ Ricky Lumpkin (93) and Justin Cole (46) in the fourth quarter of the preseason opener against the Raiders. The Vikings are trying to get their pass protection to the level it was at back in 2012.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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In the NFL it is a known fact that the left tackle is the most important position in protecting the quarterback.

While Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil started all 16 games last season, he noted at the end of the season that knee inflammation and swelling was serious enough that it required surgery in the offseason. Kalil’s injuries, mixed with injuries to center John Sullivan and guard Charlie Johnson, meant that the offensive line simply wasn’t as able to protect the quarterback as they were in 2012, when Christian Ponder started every game.

Besides the offensive line’s faults last season, the defense blew five games in the final minutes, which also helped contribute to a 5-10-1 record. Yet, there was plenty of blame pointed at Ponder for not providing the amount of offense needed to overcome the deficiencies of the defense.

That lack of quarterback protection last year had a lot to do with the lack of scoring and the team’s losing record, compared to 10-6 in 2012.

Last season, Ponder played nine games, but overall the Vikings allowed 44 sacks (which ranked 22nd in the NFL) and 84 quarterback hits (which ranked 19th).

Compare that to 2012, when the Vikings allowed just 32 sacks (11th in the NFL) and just 64 QB hits (fifth) and you can see why blaming most of the team’s disappointing 2013 performance on Ponder doesn’t get to the bottom of the issue.

In 2012, when Ponder started every game and took them to the playoffs, Kalil was named to the Pro Bowl and was one of the key pieces of a revamped offensive line that helped lead Adrian Peterson to the second-best rushing season in NFL history, gaining 2,097 yards.

But last year Kalil battled injuries, as did several offensive linemen like Sullivan, who was a Pro Football Writers’ Association All-Pro in 2012, and the team struggled to win close games as Peterson’s yards dropped off to 1,266 in 2013.

If the first half of the preseason game against Arizona is any indication, the offensive line is blocking like they did in 2012. Matt Cassel, who has been sacked just once in two games, wasn’t touched Saturday night despite playing the entire first half.

He completed 12 of 16 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown. So in two preseason games, with good protection, Cassel has gone 17-for-22 for 215 yards with one score and no turnovers.

And Teddy Bridgewater looked good against the Arizona backups, throwing two TD passes, including the winner in the closing moments of the 30-28 victory. So the early signs are good for the Vikings offense.

From California to Minnesota

The Gophers are excited about the development of sophomore receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who caught 15 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown last year.

Wolitarsky, who graduated from Canyon County High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., talked about how he ended up at Minnesota.

“Long story: [Defensive backs coach Jay] Sawvel came out to recruit me when I was ending my junior year, he brought a pamphlet that said ‘Minnesota,’ ” Wolitarsky recalled. “I said, ‘I think these guys used to play USC right?’ I said that in my head, not to him, but I wasn’t really sure what program I expected, just corn, that is what it is here outside of the cities. But I came here on my visit, loved it, caught me off guard, and I decided to try it out and come here.”

Wolitarsky said he had offers from San Jose State and San Diego State, but no Pac-12 schools offered him scholarships, despite setting California records for career receptions and receiving yards in high school.

Wolitarsky said he expects nothing but improvements this season from the passing game.

“I truly believe it will [be better],” he said. “I think it already has [improved].”

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