Sam Bradford kept getting up.
Nineteen times the Eagles knocked Bradford to the turf, a season worst by the Vikings, and each time his jersey only looked worse for the wear. If this keeps up, Bradford might not get up.
That’s the concern as coaches and players scramble to fix pass protection issues in preparation for Monday night’s game in Chicago. As the Eagles exposed in the Vikings’ first loss last week, an inability to keep the quarterback upright remains a talented roster’s Achilles’ heel and perhaps the biggest threat to the Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes.
“We can’t get Sam hit that much,” guard Alex Boone said.
The Vikings’ main priority this offseason was to shore up the offensive line and, specifically, the pass protection. Mike Zimmer made it a season goal to cut last year’s sack total (45) in half. They were at least on pace to come close before surrendering a season-worst six sacks in Philadelphia. Now they’re only on pace for a modest improvement (37).
But don’t put all the blame on the offensive line, as woeful as it has been.
“At times, receivers need to get open or the quarterback needs to make a quicker decision,” guard Brandon Fusco said.
Fusco is right. Bradford was quick to point out he needed a quicker release. In Philadelphia, the Vikings didn’t use many max protection looks, but when they did assign extra help, it wasn’t effective. Running back Matt Asiata, generally a stalwart in protection, had a rough time, allowing two hits and a sack.
“It made me mad, personally, because that’s what coaches trust me to do,” Asiata said. “I’m going to take that to the heart and work on it this week.”
A shift in scheme has also impacted results.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is generally liberal about applying extra protection and trusting his players in odd matchups, such as tight end Kyle Rudolph blocking a heavier defensive end. But the Vikings have seldom used multiple-tight end sets this season, becoming physically lighter as an offense now predicated on using shotgun formations with three receivers.
Even if the Vikings wanted their bigger bodies to help protect Bradford, it would be difficult considering the attrition brought on by banged-up bodies. Tight end Rhett Ellison, perhaps the group’s best blocker, was trying to find a groove in his return from a torn patellar tendon last January before aggravating his surgically repaired knee in Week 4 against the New York Giants. He was held out Week 5 and played just 13 snaps in Philadelphia.
Tight ends MyCole Pruitt and David Morgan have also recently missed games because of knee injuries. Pruitt has been held out since Week 5 and Morgan returned last week but wasn’t used in the offense, he said, as the Vikings didn’t anticipate needing many heavy sets against the Eagles.
Getting the tight end group healthy and more involved could be one answer to the Vikings’ protection woes.
“Now we’ve got some guys hurt, pass protection hasn’t been nearly as good as it has been,” Zimmer said.
That, of course, includes the well-chronicled offensive line issues.
The Vikings deployed a three-man rotation at tackle after adding veteran Jake Long in place of injured Andre Smith, who joined Matt Kalil on injured reserve this month. That trio of tackles, including T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles, failed to block Eagles defenders responsible for 12 of the 19 hits on Bradford, including all four strip-sacks.
Finding a suitable pairing at tackle, and giving those guys help, could provide some stability. The Vikings could also seek help from other rosters before Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline.
After the Eagles loss, Zimmer said he wished the Vikings coaching staff had done some things differently to keep Bradford clean.
Fusco sees a simpler solution.
“We have to win one-on-one battles,” Fusco said. “I think that is the biggest thing. For us, we’ve been struggling in the one-on-one battles and we need to win more than we’re doing right now.”