It’s a potential jinx to mention in the Vikings locker room, but the offensive line — the previously tattered mess at the feet of last year’s 3-8 slide — has played 99.7 percent of the snaps together through four games.
And just like that, the line that has been at the center of the Vikings’ rebuild is now the team’s glimmer of hope with starting quarterback Sam Bradford hampered by knee injury and running back Dalvin Cook out because of one after one quarter of the 2017 season.
Just bringing up the line’s current state summoned right tackle Mike Remmers to knock his knuckles on the wooden locker nearby.
“Come on, man,” Remmers said. “I mean, there’s only so much you can control.”
That’s true. This time last year, a perfect 4-0 Vikings team was deceptively blemished by the loss of both starting tackles — Matt Kalil and Andre Smith — to injured reserve, along with the previous injuries to Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson. The trade for Bradford couldn’t overcome a patchwork line that limited options in game plans throughout last season.
The absence of Cook, out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, will hurt the Vikings offense, but to what extent? At 2-2, the Vikings offensive line still is intact and awaiting Bradford’s return. After missing three games because of a knee injury, Bradford’s uncertain status is an even more critical factor tipping the scales of this season.
In the meantime, they’re left to readjust, first with Case Keenum replacing Bradford against the Steelers, Buccaneers and Lions, and now with veteran Latavius Murray replacing Cook. Can Murray bring enough punch to make their play-action throws as effective as when Cook was in the backfield?
“We’re going to have to look at things differently,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Whichever quarterback plays Monday in Chicago, Bradford or Keenum, he should at least have some time to work in the pocket — a rare scenario for Bradford last season when downfield shots and slow-developing plays weren’t reasonable options behind a porous offensive line.
This group probably won’t have a Pro Bowler or a single All-Pro vote-getter, but the offensive line has quietly grown the edge Zimmer has desperately wanted during his four seasons in Minnesota. The evidence is in Remmers kicking away a Buccaneer’s mouthpiece as the Tampa defender reached down for it, or left guard Nick Easton’s inclination to shove after the whistle.
Consecutive fourth-quarter snaps against the Lions provided further evidence of improvement. Keenum stepped into two clean pockets when he found tight end Kyle Rudolph for two catches and 34 yards, bringing the Vikings to the Lions 8-yard line where they were positioned to tie the score, down 14-7.
The Lions ran a defensive tackle twist on the 15-yard, third-down completion. Detroit then sent a five-man pressure on the 19-yard throw to Rudolph. Keenum wasn’t touched on either.
“It’s not the answer, but the more you can be on the field together, the better it is,” right guard Joe Berger said. “That’s starting to show with some things. Even [Sunday] with some communication, it’s maybe better than in the past. Just more fluid, I guess.”
But Keenum made the wrong adjustment on third-and-goal at the Lions 3, shifting the protection toward a blitz that wasn’t actually coming. He then took a sack from the opposite side instead of getting rid of the ball quickly, making the Vikings’ chances of converting a fourth-and-goal from the 14 much slimmer.
That was one of only five sacks the Vikings have allowed this season, tied for fifth fewest in the league. The Vikings gave up 38 sacks last year, tied for 23rd in the NFL.
Cook, whose elusiveness flashed with 18 broken tackles on 85 touches, also benefited from more room with which to work than last year’s running backs. He gained an average of 2.6 yards per carry before contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Last year’s leading rusher, Jerick McKinnon, averaged 1.3 yards before contact per attempt.
There is a “here we go again” feeling, receiver Adam Thielen admitted, but he pointed to a foundation that could keep this Vikings ship from sinking in the same manner as 2016’s vessel.
“We have a lot of weapons on offense, which helps,” Thielen said. “I think we have a lot of guys that can make plays. We obviously have a great offensive line that keeps getting better, so now we just got to go out and execute.”