Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano has been with the team for two seasons, but it’s incredible how different those two seasons have been.
Last year the Vikings lost so many starters on the offensive line that they couldn’t protect anyone, giving up the 10th-most sacks in the league, or run block, averaging an NFL-worst 75.3 rushing yards per game.
“Last year honestly was probably one of the tougher coaching jobs that I’ve had,” Sparano said. “I’ve just never been through having to go through 12 people and actually playing 12 guys before. When you lose your first two tackles in the first three weeks, I mean, that made it a little bit difficult.
“We adjusted and planned for adjustments and we adjusted. A lot of young guys played, and that’s paying off now.”
Yes it is. The Vikings have given up only 10 sacks in nine games. That’s the NFL’s second-lowest mark behind the Saints, who have Drew Brees, one of the quickest-release passers in league history. The Vikings are rushing for 118.0 yards per game, 11th in the NFL, despite seeing starter Dalvin Cook go down because of a knee injury in Week 4.
Sparano said that at the end of last season he had a feeling that this year would be different. “Because so many guys played, we were doing better,” he said. “We just couldn’t keep those players in specific positions. An example would be a guy like Joe Berger, who was a center and ends up playing guard, and Jeremiah Sirles maybe played three or four positions during the course of that.
“But I felt like the playing time and the amount of playing time they got allowed us to get a little better by the end of the season.”
Sparano said that one of the biggest changes on the line — which added tackles Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff while losing tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith in free agency, and cut guard Alex Boone in training camp — is the toughness they show.
“The thing I think this group does is they’re going to fight you,” Sparano said. “I think if you get five guys out there that are smart guys and that are physically tough guys that will fight you, you give yourself a chance. I think this group gives us a chance because of what they do.”
When asked about the improvement in pass protection, Sparano praised his linemen’s hard work.
“Sacks come in a lot of different ways, I’ve said that before,” he said. “At the end of the day it goes under the offensive line’s byline, no matter how many sacks you have. I try not to count them. They have done a good job of protecting and they can all move their feet pretty good. There is room for improvement. We have to get better every week.
“The thing this group loves to do is they love to go out and practice. They go out and practice with a purpose to get better each and every day. That’s what the head coach asks of them. But more importantly you can ask that to a lot of players and not get it. This group really wants to do that.”
Sparano broke down the play of his five main starters starting with rookie center Pat Elflein.
“I knew he was competitive at Ohio State, we spent some time with him during the draft process and I knew he was smart,” Sparano said. “But I also knew that coming from the system he came from there might be, it might take a little bit for him to understand completely what we’re doing because it was really two totally different things.
“I think he embraced that and has spent an awful lot of time learning the position to the point now where he’s starting to think one pitch ahead, he’s one pitch ahead, one pitch ahead, one pitch ahead. He’s starting to think outside the box a little bit, which is great as a young player. The young kid has a bright future here, and I’m just pleased with what he has done.”
On right guard Berger: “I think he’ll play wherever you want him to play and he does a good job because he’s a smart player and a strong player. I like what he has done at guard. He’s probably taken more snaps at center obviously, but I think the transition and the fact we did not mess around with him at all through training camp and spring … not flipping him, I think helped him to get better here this year and learn that position a little bit better.”
Left tackle Reiff: “A very smart player. All of these guys are smart players, which is a great luxury to have. He’s a tough-minded guy. I think mentally he’s a very tough guy. Physically he’s a tough player. I like his strengths. He puts himself in tough body positions. On any given play, he has a chance to win that rep … because he puts himself in that good body position. He’ll fight you until the end of the down, which is what I really like about him.”
Left guard Nick Easton: “The biggest thing with Nick is his motor goes all the time, he plays hard all the time. I think he understand the limitations and the things he gives up inside because you’re playing against some bigger players there. But I think he likes the fact that he has some freedom without the ball between his legs right now, at guard. We can get him on the move to his strengths, his strengths are his athleticism and the fact he can run. He really is a tough kid.”
And right tackle Remmers, who won’t play Sunday because of an injury: “He is exactly what I thought he would be, actually maybe a little bit more than what I thought he would be. I’m really pleased with what Mike has done. Mike constantly, constantly works at getting better. He’s a very smart player. He has a tough streak in him that shows up in games, and he’s a guy that will fight you.”
• Former Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi has been working with collegiate officials in Japan to educate them about athletic departments, which are not currently a part of Japanese education. He played host to officials from the University of Tsukuba last weekend.
• Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is going to be the team’s nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award this year.
• Keep an eye out for a future article on Vikings receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in Sports Illustrated. A reporter has been in town working on the story.
• The Vikings have three remaining home games. The game with the Rams is sold out. Their home game against Cincinnati on Dec. 17 has limited availability in the upper level and the same is true for their final home game against Chicago on Dec. 31.
• Vikings quarterback Case Keenum spoke about leaving the Rams after last season to the Los Angeles Times: “I could sit here and go through all the excuses and have a pity party for myself, ‘This is bad that happened to me. This is out of my control.’ But I don’t see it that way. I see that I’ve made  starts in the NFL now. I’ve had a lot of fun.”
• The Vikings defensive line will see a familiar face when they go against Rams center John Sullivan, who started 104 games for the Vikings. “I’m glad to see him doing well and I’m glad to go against him,” defensive tackle Linval Joseph said. Joseph added that he knows Sullivan will be a tough matchup.
• Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is always talking defense, and his team held the Mavericks to a low 37.2 percent shooting on Friday night, including 31 percent (13-of-42) in the second half.
• Baseball America published their minor league All-Star team and had Class AA Chattanooga lefthander Gabriel Moya on the list. Moya pitched well for the Twins in September.