As the Vikings have developed some efficiency on the ground the last three weeks — first by gaining 188 yards against the Cardinals’ anemic run front and sealing a win on the ground against the Jets, then by turning in a solid performance against the Saints’ top-ranked run defense — it’s become clear once again why their season could have been in such dire straits had Pat Elflein not been able to return to full health after a pair of offseason surgeries.
Elflein, who spent all of training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list after having ankle and shoulder surgeries, started his first game of the season in Week 4 against the Rams, and has particularly made his presence felt in recent weeks on zone runs. He opened up space on both of Latavius Murray’s TD runs against the Jets and quickly got to the second level on Murray’s two longest runs (of 12 and 10 yards) against the Saints (though Elflein did have a holding penalty that wiped out Murray’s 23-yarder in the second quarter).
“I think he’s really quick with his hands,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “He gets the ball out to the quarterback very, very quickly. He has a great first step. He’s quick. The other thing is he knows what is going on. He understands, he can diagnose fronts very quickly. He understands safety rotation, understands the alignment in the front where there could be a stunt up front. He does a great job of recognition and understanding what the possibilities of what is coming at him.”
The Vikings have spent the week downplaying the issues of a Lions run front that ranks 30th in the league with a 5.1-yard rushing average against them, despite only giving up six runs of 20 yards or more. The addition of former Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison will give the Lions another stout run defender as the season goes forward, but the Vikings have at least been able to establish their running game in recent weeks after struggling to find any rhythm early this season.
“They’re very physical in there,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’re going to have to stick with it, going to have to keep pounding and keep fighting, stay on blocks because these guys are big, physical players, linebackers are getting downhill. I’ve seen some teams that have been gashed before, but I don’t see [that in] this.”
Harrison had a sack and two tackles for loss in his first game with the Lions, and the 353-pound tackle will be a load for the Vikings to move on Sunday. Elflein, though, has provided a steadying force for a line that didn’t have much success establishing a run game in his absence.
“[He’s very influential], especially when you are running your inside zone,” DeFilippo said. “Any runs. We always just talk about getting the play started. Getting the play started and when you’re running inside, Pat does a good job of denting the line of scrimmage at the point of attack to where you can get the play started.”