The NFL keeps track of its "ironmen" at each position. A Vikings player currently sits atop all defensive tackles with 74 consecutive starts, but COVID-19 will bring that to an end Sunday at San Francisco.
Yes, among the four defensive line starters who won't face the 49ers is Dalvin Tomlinson, a guy who has never missed a start in 74 NFL games. That's how depleted the Vikings defensive line is.
It helps, of course, that the Vikings have some depth. Sheldon Richardson, for instance, will play in his 67th consecutive game, replacing Tomlinson atop the league's defensive tackles for most consecutive games played.
But the best way to help the Vikings defensive line rests on the other side of the ball. In short, the offensive line needs to control this critical NFC game in every way that it utterly failed at the last time the Vikings were in San Francisco for a key conference game.
On Jan. 11, 2020, the Vikings lined up this way, left to right, along the offensive line for the NFC divisional playoff game at Levi's Stadium: Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury, Josh Kline and Brian O'Neill.
The running game was held to 21 yards on 10 carries. Dalvin Cook had 15 touches for 26 yards. Kirk Cousins tied a career high in sacks with six. And the offense limped home with 147 total yards in a 27-10 beatdown.
Coach Mike Zimmer was asked this week to assess the difference between the offensive line that lined up that day and the one he'll take with him into Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday.
"I'm trying to think back to what the pass protection was two years ago," he said. "I think [this year's linemen] have done a pretty good job for the most part. And I think Kirk knows where to go with the football."
No, this year's offensive line isn't dominant. Yes, right guard Oli Udoh leads the NFL with nine holding penalties. Yes, the center position isn't ideal whether it's former first-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury or 2021 under-the-radar free-agent pickup Mason Cole starting.
But Sunday's likely lineup of Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Cole, Udoh and O'Neill is better than what the 49ers exposed in that playoff game. The Vikings can win with this offensive line, which they have proven with back-to-back signature victories over the Chargers and Packers.
The Vikings rank second in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt (3.72%) and fifth in red-zone touchdowns (67.74%). The 49ers defense is 10th in sacks per pass attempt (7.3%) and 18th in red-zone touchdowns allowed (61.76%).
Cousins is third in passer rating (106.3) and has a league-low two interceptions. He also has been sacked only 14 times, tying a career low through 10 games in his seven years as a starter.
In his first six seasons as a starter, Cousins averaged 19.7 sacks through his first 10 games. His 10-game totals in Washington were 17, 14 and 25. With the Vikings, they are 26, 17, 19 and 14.
Cousins had been sacked at least once in 24 straight games heading into Week 6 at Carolina. His next three games went like this: zero sacks at Carolina, one sack against Dallas and zero sacks at Baltimore.
Of course, as Cousins noted in a conversation after his Wednesday news conference, it's not just the offensive line he is counting on for protection. Cook proved that with the wicked collision he had with blitzing linebacker De'Vondre Campbell on Cousins' 43-yard completion to Justin Jefferson on third down in last week's win over the Packers.
"Blitz pickup is something we ask our running backs to do, and it's a tough ask," Cousins said. "Dalvin did a tremendous job on that play. It's a difficult job. It's a grunt-work type of job.
"I knew when the ball was snapped that we were going to be asking a lot of Dalvin on that play. And he stepped up and because of that we were able to hit Justin and get a third down converted and go down and get three points. It's a team game. You're so dependent on the guys around you. Everybody has to work together to help each other."
Yep. And now more than ever is a time for the offense to really help the defense.
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