T.J. Clemmings knew Kony Ealy’s tendencies.
He’s powerful. And although the Carolina Panthers defensive end has some speed, he’s not the fastest edge rusher Clemmings has played against. After all, the Vikings tackle was tasked with blocking Von Miller in his fourth NFL start ever last fall.
On the Vikings’ touchdown drive to start the second half at Carolina on Sunday, Clemmings did what he often struggled to do a year ago and stopped the defender in his tracks. His most critical decision came before the snap.
“I have a tight end outside of me, he’s not going to run outside the tight end,” Clemmings recalled. “He’s going to come toward me, which means I can get to him a little quicker — a quick set.”
His choice paired with improved technique enabled Clemmings to stonewall Ealy, creating a space for Sam Bradford to step into on a 10-yard completion. Nine plays later, the Vikings took the lead for good in Clemmings’ first start at left tackle for the injured Matt Kalil.
Overlooked because of the exploits of the defense and special teams, the second-year tackle quietly showed his improvement by making sure his name wasn’t mentioned in the broadcast booth.
“Just studying the film this year and understanding what we’re doing makes a world of a difference,” Clemmings said. “Last year was like, things were moving a little fast. Just trying to be right, trying to see what was going on.”
Last year, as a fourth-round rookie out of Pittsburgh, Clemmings made an unexpected debut in the starting lineup at right tackle after veteran Phil Loadholt suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in the preseason.
Opponents were too big and quick for him to handle while he was still processing steps in his sets, hand placement and style of defender. He’d often lunge to grab at a rusher, a poor college technique that helped lead to a team-high 42 quarterback hurries allowed last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I was a rookie, but that’s no excuse. I knew, yes, I need work. This is my third year playing offensive line. Most days I didn’t let it bother me,” Clemmings said. “Whatever Coach asks me to do, how can I get better at it every week? That’s what I strive for.”
His strides in pass protection, specifically, didn’t go unnoticed Sunday as Bradford took just three hits on 30 drop-backs against a strong Panthers defense. Only one of those hits came from Clemmings’ guy as the offensive game plan called for quick passes and often left him without additional help.
The offense failed to muster much success run blocking, including the 309-pound Clemmings, as the Vikings now rank last in rushing yards per game (51), per run (2.1) and touchdowns (0). His improved play on Bradford’s backside has to be encouraging for a unit stricken by injuries that can ill afford another, especially at quarterback.
“I thought he did pretty well,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He did a nice job in pass protection, used his hands well. There were some really good things in the running game. Obviously, there was some other issues. I think for the first time it was pretty good.”
The Vikings have liked the initial results in pass protection under first-year offensive line coach Tony Sparano. They’re on pace to surrender 32 sacks after averaging 48 each of the past two seasons, a consolation prize for a group averaging an NFL-low one offensive touchdown per game.
Clemmings’ first start provided the latest example as the former college basketball recruit and defensive-line convert is playing only his fourth season on offense.
Because of his inexperience, the initial plan was to take this season to develop behind two tackles, Kalil and Andre Smith, on one-year deals. Instead, Clemmings has begun his own audition as a long-term solution at tackle.
“It’s a little hard when you’ve got so many things on your mind,” Clemmings said. “Now, the game slowed down a bit for me and I understand my sets, I understand what I have to do and I understand what the offense is trying to do, so it makes it easier — a little bit easier.”