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Good to Great: Trench Warfare

Tanishka Mhaskar
March 14th, 2020
Photo: Star Tribune

Another year, another suffocating season-ending loss, whether it be in the playoffs or a Week 17 choke. One thing is clear with the Minnesota Vikings, they’re weak where everyone else is strong. They cannot be contenders without winning the trench war. 

When the Vikings lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 in that musty 38-7 game, they faced  a nasty Eagles defensive line rotation consisting of Chris Long, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett and Tim Jernigan. They abused Case Keenum and a Vikings offensive line forcing multiple turnovers and pressure.

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings simply couldn’t terrorize Eagles QB Nick Foles. Danielle Hunter had a sack, but Foles had days to sit back in the pocket and rip apart the Minnesota secondary.

The Vikings were simply outmanned up front. 

It’s important to note that in 2017 the Eagles had four players with at least five sacks which led to a clean and effective defensive line rotation. In addition to their pass rushing, the Eagles allowed a meager 79.2 rushing yards per game. 

The amount of draft capital Philadelphia spent prioritizing not just their defensive line but also their elite offensive line shows through their results. Since 2010, the Eagles had nine first round picks and SEVEN were spent on linemen. That’s 78% of draft picks. 

It’s only fitting they win a Super Bowl through this strategy. 

The Vikings struggled up front repeatedly in their 2020 matchup in Santa Clara where they lost to the 49ers 27-10. The score is certainly closer than the game felt. The 49ers had a defensive line rotation of their own with Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, Sheldon Day and Solomon Thomas. 

This rotation is arguably deeper than the 2018 Eagles rotation. The 49ers racked up six sacks, nine QB hits and an alarming 46% pressure rate, the highest faced by Kirk Cousins in his two year career with the Vikings. In addition, they bottled up the run game, allowing a scant 21 yards rushing. 

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings defensive line got MOVED by 49ers offensive line. Albeit tired, they allowed 186 rushing yards and players like Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph looked like shells of themselves.

The 49ers had a similar draft strategy to the Eagles in that since 2010 they had 13 first round picks and they spent eight of them on linemen, 62% of draft picks.

Now, let’s take a look at the state of the Vikings. 

Since 2010, they've 12 first round picks, and they've spent only THREE of them on linemen. Minnesota's production up-front is just as small as the amount of draft capital they spend on linemen.

Minnesota’s edge rushers are extremely talented, but the interior defensive line is just that weak. Shamar Stephen, once a rotational player, received a starting role this season and alongside a Linval Joseph who had surgery midway through the season, they both disappeared more often than not. 

Minnesota cut Linval Joseph yesterday, so the Vikings will likely be looking to add some breadth to the middle via draft or free agency.

In the draft, some options include the stud Javon Kinlaw out of South Carolina, Neville Gallimore from Oklahoma or Ross Blaclock from Texas Christian. All of them are plug and play defensive tackles who could very easily improve the trenches.

If the Vikings choose to focus on other needs early in the draft, they could focus on free agency to land a talented interior pass rusher. Some names include Jordan Pilipps of the Buffalo Bills and Jarran Reed of the Seattle Seahawks.

Philipps had 9.5 sacks for the Bills last year and could provide an immediate improvement over Stephen/Joseph. Reed, who was suspended for six games last year has proven to be a disruptive pass rusher. When he last played a full season, he accrued 10.5 sacks and was a fractious run defender. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings have made leaps and bounds from 2016, finding a RT stud in Brian O’Neill and signing Josh Kline. Last year’s first round pick Garrett Bradbury had a bit of an up and down year but he was clear improvement from Pat Eflein who the VIkings can officially label ‘bust’ after falling off post an impressive rookie campaign. 

The struggles of this offensive line are primarily on the left side with Eflein and LT Riley Reiff. Minnesota’s best interests would be to simply bench Eflein and make some sort of deal with Reiff (maybe a restructure). 

Some options in the draft include Andrew Thomas from Georgia, Josh Jones from Houston or Austin Jackson from USC. All would thrive under OC Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme.

The Vikings could also look to target Kelechi Osemele or Joe Thuney in free agency to shore up Elflein’s spot. 

In essence, Minnesota desperately needs to shore up their trenches if they want to accomplish the final goal, in a Super Bowl. If they do, they could become nearly unstoppable. The NFL playoffs have turned into trench warfare, and Minnesota needs to shore up, up front. Only then can the Minnesota Vikings take the step from good to great.