Starters: LT Riley Reiff; LG Dakota Dozier; C Garrett Bradbury; RG Ezra Cleveland, RT Brian O’Neill.
Notable backups: T Rashod Hill, G Dru Samia, T Oli Udoh, Brett Jones (practice squad)
IR: G Pat Elflein
The sense of improvement in Year 1 of line coach Rick Dennison’s zone-based scheme was tempered some by the line’s ineptness in the ugly playoff beatdown in San Francisco. Further diminishing expectations was an entire offseason and preseason lost to the global pandemic. Grand plans for what General Manager Rick Spielman called a “wide-open” competition at guard were scuttled with no hands-on training and a quick ramp-up to the regular season. The Vikings just plugged Dozier – a career backup – in at left guard and tried to sell the notion that moving incumbent right guard Elflein to his more natural spot at right guard would be rejuvenating for a player who has been a disappointment since his rookie season. Spielman’s top offseason investment – selecting Cleveland as the left tackle of the future in the second round – had no chance of overtaking Reiff or adjusting to guard quickly enough to contribute right away. The Vikings still used Cleveland’s presence to get Reiff to take a $4 million pay cut to make room for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, whom the team traded away weeks later.
Where they are
They’ve grown into a more confident, cohesive group since desperation forced them to insert Cleveland into the starting lineup at right guard three games ago. With the same five starters the past three weeks, the Vikings have won two straight games with overpowering performances by Dalvin Cook and his blockers (above, photo by Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune). Cook won consecutive NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. He had 226 yards from and four touchdowns on 32 touches from scrimmage in the stunning upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field. Then he pounded Detroit with 252 yards and two touchdowns on 24 touches. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins has gone two straight games without a turnover while being sacked only twice. He completed 67.6 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and passer ratings of 138.1 and 141.7.
Player to watch
Cleveland. Reiff, Dozier, Bradbury and O’Neill have started every game. But it’s Cleveland’s reliable emergence that’s most encouraging, not only for this season but for the future. It took an injury to Elflein before Week 2 and four awful starts by Samia for the Vikings to have no other choice but to throw the rookie into the arena when they went into their bye with a 1-5 record. Being able to move inside and hold up physically in his first three starts is a great sign that Cleveland was worthy of a second-round pick. His progression this season is vital to this team’s future. With a full, normal COVID-19-free offseason, Cleveland should be able to take his experiences this year and move to left tackle, where the hope is he and O’Neill would be bookend tackles for several years to come. Bradbury, last year’s first-round pick, would anchor the inside as the Vikings looked to bolster the guard positions to continue getting the most out of Cook’s prime.
448: Combined rushing yards by the Vikings’ offense during the current two-game winning streak against the Packers (173) and Lions (275). That is the most rushing yards in a two-game span by the Vikings since they rushed for 478 yards in the 11th and 12th games of the 2013 season. In those two games, they ran for 232 yards at Green Bay and came back with 246 against the Bears at home.