Vikings winning with stronger interior line, composed QB play

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

It’s been quite some time since the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams played a meaningful game after Halloween. In Week 11, we finally got a new, relevant chapter between the two division leaders.

In perhaps the most unexpected outcome, the Vikings came away with the win earned on the backs of its runners.

Latavius Murray rushed 15 times for 95 yards and two touchdowns, and Jerick McKinnon gained 48 yards on 14 attempts. The running game chewed all the clock necessary to cap an excellent offensive day from quarterback Case Keenum, who spread the ball among nine receivers on 27-of-38 passing for 280 yards and a score. The Vikings salted away their best win of the season in the fourth by riding the two backs, feeding them carry after carry, including one by Murray that initially went for 34 yards before some of it was negated due to an illegal block in the back.

The performance produced a 24-7 win over one of the league’s hottest teams. Four days later, the Vikings rode that momentum to another win over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. Get out of the water while you can, because no one seems ready to stop this ship full of Norsemen.

That win over Los Angeles was somewhat of a surprise, though. The Rams were limited to just seven points and didn’t bring the defensive punch many expected. We took a look at the game from the trenches to see what happened.

An interesting (and vital) matchup entering this game was that between Vikings rookie center Pat Elfleinand Rams all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald, when the latter was lined up in the A gap. Very quickly, it became evident that while this was important, Minnesota’s running game would depend on Elflein’s play no matter who he was facing.

For the most part, he was reliably effective. Whether it was double teams, doubles to a backside chip, or man-on-man blocking in pass protection, Elflein was solid against a variety of defenders.

On Latavius Murray‘s 8-yard touchdown run, the keys were the right side of the line: Elflein, right guard Joe Berger and right tackle Rashod Hill. Berger doubled down with Elflein on defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, with the center peeling back to meet Mark Barron in the backside A gap. The quick chip to Barron sealed the left side, and Hill maintained inside leverage on defensive tackle Michael Brockers on the right, creating a lane just wide enough for Murray to scoot through before breaking through an Alec Ogletree tackle at the goal line for a touchdown.

Without Elflein’s chip to Barron, the play probably is stymied by the linebacker for a short gain at best.

But as with any interior lineman, when things didn’t work, it usually ended in a loss. That much was evident when Elflein was caught leaning, stumbled and wasn’t available to make a similar chip onto Barron earlier in the game. The result was a loss of three for Murray.

Minnesota has demonstrated how much trust it has in the first-year pivot, even putting his straight-line speed to the test on a swing pass into the flats. Elflein snapped the ball and almost immediately sprinted down the line of scrimmage toward the flats, identifying Nickell Robey-Coleman as his target. The only problem: A defensive back is always faster than a center. Advantage: Robey-Coleman.

There’s also Elflein’s dependability in pass protection, which might be his strongest suit. On Case Keenum‘s needle-thread of a pass down the seam to tight end Kyle Rudolph, Elflein took on Ethan Westbrooks by himself and didn’t relent for all 2.74 seconds it took Keenum to fire the pass.

This team is obviously much more than its rookie center, but much like we raved about Atlanta’s immediate improvement last season after signing Alex Mack, we’re seeing similar results for the Vikings, who drafted Elflein in the third round with the 70th overall pick. In a game against a Wade Phillips-schemed defense, it was interesting to see how Elflein would perform against a myriad of fronts and defenders. He passed the test.

Another strong suit of the Vikings‘ offense comes in their blitz pickup, most notably when Jerick McKinnon is on the field. The running back picked up two blitzes early in the game on Minnesota’s first possession with completely different blocks that produced the same result: a protected quarterback.

Perhaps the most important part of Minnesota’s offense doesn’t exist out wide, or even along the line of scrimmage. It’s Keenum.

Minnesota protected fairly well in the passing game, and as the numbers show, the Vikings run blocked well. But Los Angeles still pressured Keenum plenty. The difference: He never panicked.

Calm, cool and constantly keeping his eyes downfield, Keenum avoided pressure from all sides at different times to take deep shots that proved harmless, and to find third and fourth options in the flats to keep the chains moving. Quarterback is the highest valued position in sports, but this quality tends to go overlooked with the less glamorous names. It’s pretty evident from the first snap, though, that Keenum’s experience pays great dividends for the Vikings.

When you play with this composure, sometimes even the preposterous happens, such as in this extreme example, where Keenum holds onto the ball far too long, avoids a sack thanks to Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin forgetting to wrap him up, and somehow keeps his eyes on Adam Thielen. By conventional standards, this play is blocked well enough to succeed. Then another two seconds are added onto Keenum’s time to throw, and it goes from normal to near-miracle — and a first down.

Success rarely comes in just one aspect of the game. As Minnesota is demonstrating right now, the Vikings are winning with a complete effort from all 11 — including five (let’s not go without a name drop for offseason acquisition Riley Reiff) who are achieving above their expectations.

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