This is where T.J. Clemmings’ film study would pay dividends.
Clemmings, the Vikings’ uneven rookie right tackle now called upon to a higher duty in his second season, had studied Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy, who would be his primary adversary during his first-ever meaningful start at left tackle in any level of football. Now it’s first-and-10 from the Panthers’ 15-yard line and the Vikings trail 10-8 after halftime.
“All week, any little bit of film he’s in I’m watching him,” Clemmings said, “seeing how he’s rushing, how he’s playing the run. I’d say he’s a powerful guy, definitely has speed to him. I wouldn’t say he’s one of the faster guys I’ve gone against, but he can get the edge if the tackle doesn’t set properly.”
Although this time, about three yards to his left, it’s Mario Addison, whom the Panthers instead schemed a team-high 11 rushes on Clemmings’ 30 snaps in pass protection. He’d also studied Addison, which let him quickly settle on a plan of attack based on his tendencies and alignment. The following block would allow Sam Bradford to turn his way and throw a 15-yard touchdown pass for tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings’ play designs and a quick passing game aided Clemmings, but his teammates rarely did, as he was their better of two tackles on the field in his first start for the injured Matt Kalil.
His and the team’s struggles continued in the running game, where the Vikings rank last in the league in yards per game (51), per carry (2.1) and touchdowns (0). But his improved play in pass protection helped propel Bradford to an efficient second half (14-17, 145 yards, TD) that sealed the upset win snapping the Panthers’ 14-game home winning streak.
“Decent game,” Clemmings said.
Let’s start on the first throw of the game.
On third-and-7 during the opening drive, seven Panthers defenders crowd the line of scrimmage. The Vikings’ protection call is made to counter a potential rush and keep Bradford clean at the cost of more hands to catch down the field. Seven Vikings stay in to block, allowing Clemmings to shift away from Ealy to start the game.
“This is actually a full line slide to the right,” Clemmings said. “I’m going to get the least help on this, if anything.”
Clemmings is called to block down on second-team All-Pro Kawann Short, who has a few pounds on him and is one of five different defenders he’ll block throughout the day. It’s an example of the varied looks presented by the Vikings, which helped Clemmings remain in an advantageous spot. Here, he skips the traditional kick step in pass pro for a forward block. He needs to move quickly.
“Hardest part is you can’t let the three technique [defensive tackle] get his feet started,” Clemmings said. “You have to get your hands on him quick and stop him at the line. The ball should be gone by the time he gets going. … I still get a little hand from the guard, so it’s not terrible.”
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At 309 pounds, Clemmings is lighter than the guard he played alongside for most of the game in Jeremiah Sirles. An athletic build for his position allows the Vikings to use him as a lead blocker on screens to the opposite side of the field, as they did in Carolina. On the flip side, his struggles on Sunday were largely contained to the running game, where he’s still not generating enough power.
To levy a blow in protection, his hand placement is critical. Ealy lined up across from Clemmings on this third-and-10 backed up to their own end zone.
“On this one, he’s already pretty wide, so I was trying to keep him out there,” Clemmings said.
Clemmings kick steps backward, lurching his left hand forward. He’s focused on not lunging anymore while maintaining a low base. He can still play too upright at times. Bradford’s quick out to receiver Adam Thielen helps Clemmings as his feet stall, though the initial hit slows Ealy enough to maintain a clean pocket.
“Shooting my hands,” Clemmings said. “Probably can be a little bit better than that, you don’t want to hit guys above the neck, but sometimes it slides up there accidentally. The shock I give him is what I’m looking for. … Maybe one more kick and he’s not going to get there.”
During this critical protection down, the Vikings’ protection slides Clemmings’ way while using Rudolph and running back Matt Asiata to block the end across from Andre Smith on the right side. Only four out of 30 snaps did a back or tight end appear to be assigned to help Clemmings.
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Driving to start the third quarter, the Vikings offense ran into another area they’ve struggled — the red zone. On first-and-10, their formation again aids the tackles with a tight end aligned on each side of the line. With Addison kicked outside Rudolph to his left, Clemmings studied enough to know he’d need a quicker vertical set than normal on this snap.
“Actually, [Addison] was faster out of 94 [Ealy] and all the ends they have. He’s probably the quick-twitch, fast end they have,” Clemmings said. “I know he likes to do long-arm, speed up the field and spin if he’s not winning outside. Got a couple of those in the game.”
Rudolph broke left, giving Clemmings more space and an additional split second to gain depth behind him. He thrice shot his left foot back in two seconds, clamping his right hand onto Addison’s left shoulder to use his downhill momentum against him, which carried him out of the play. Sirles was there to Clemmings’ right, so he knew he could focus on keeping Addison outside.
Anticipation and proper technique — without lunging, which plagued him as a rookie — were key components to Clemmings’ solid start protecting Bradford’s backside. Bradford took just three hits, only one from Clemmings’ guy, on 30 dropbacks. His lone touchdown pass came on this play below.
“I knew where [Addison] was trying to get to and just had to shoot my hands,” Clemmings said. “And understand I had help coming from the inside.”