Case Keenum dropped back in the pocket and waited, then rolled to his right and waited some more. He surveyed the field like a sailor searching for land.
He looked at his first option. Nothing. Looked at his second option. Nothing there either. Looked at his third option. No dice.
“I didn’t know what to do back there,” Keenum joked.
As his offensive line fended off the pass rush, Keenum had enough time to count his blessings that he didn’t play quarterback for the Vikings in 2016.
Finally feeling pressure, he dumped the ball to tight end David Morgan for a 5-yard completion. Keenum released the ball 9.4 seconds after taking the snap. By NFL pass rush standards, that was the time equivalent of driving across country instead of flying.
That singular play in the third quarter of a 24-7 victory against the Los Angeles Rams perfectly captured the 180-degree transformation by the Vikings offense line.
No position group on any NFL team has improved more than their O-line this season. That declaration doesn’t come from studying every position of every team with a magnifying glass. That’s based more on common sense because dramatic improvement to this degree seems unique.
The Vikings offensive line sabotaged their 2016 season with a performance so rancid that it’s not worth re-living for fear of becoming nauseous. Let’s not go there again.
Rather abruptly, the Vikings now own one of the NFL’s top offensive lines. They are tied with the New Orleans Saints in the fewest sacks allowed with 10, and they have not given up a sack in six consecutive games. Keenum has been sacked only five times in 314 drop-backs.
“I love those guys,” Keenum said. “I love them a lot.”
Keenum has helped the cause by evading pressure with his mobility and pocket awareness. But the difference in protection and run blocking from last season to now is like upgrading dinner plans from tomato soup to surf and turf.
“The O-line is blocking their butts off,” Morgan said.
Can’t put it more succinctly, or accurately, than that.
The Vikings are ranked No. 5 in the NFL in total offense and No. 10 in scoring offense because of many factors, but improved line play belongs at the top of the list. Everything starts there. Just as everything started there last season.
“The offensive line, thank goodness it’s been the strength of our football team this year,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I just like their toughness and their mentality and their grit and the way they go about their business.”
Look at that first sentence again. The strength of the team. That shows the respect and appreciation internally for the grunt workers.
“I don’t think that they’ve gotten the credit that they deserve,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
Credit also goes to Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman for taking necessary steps to repair a hole in the team’s foundation during the offseason. They spent money to sign free-agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and then made a bold move to cut veteran Alex Boone when it became clear that he didn’t fit their vision in terms of skill set and talent.
Those moves — along with drafting stud center Pat Elflein — have produced an extreme makeover. The line is protecting Keenum and dramatically improved a running game that now ranks No. 8 in the NFL.
That part has been more impressive than their pass protection. The Vikings finished last in the NFL in rushing last season and created only 1.86 yards before contact per carry, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In other words, the line managed no push.
On Sunday, Latavius Murray ran through a lane roughly as wide as the Mississippi River for a 25-yard gain.
“You have to give them a lot of props,” Keenum said.
Shhhhhh! They hate praise. Their line is a quiet, humble group that prefers anonymity. Reiff didn’t start blowing on a party noisemaker when asked about their impressive no-sacks streak.
“That’s our job,” he said. “We don’t really talk about it. We expect to do it.”
They don’t need to say much. Their improvement speaks for itself.