Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder should get every chance to maximize his potential this season. An improving offensive line plans to make sure of it.
With fewer moving parts than a year ago and an infusion of youthful talent, the Vikings’ line looks to establishing an attitude, a physical identity that will hold up for 16 games.
“Assert our will. That’s something (offensive line coach Jeff Davidson) believes in,” left guard Charlie Johnson said. “You keep doing it over and over and over, hopefully you can make a defense break. That’s kind of what we’re doing.”
Among the Vikings’ most depleted positions from last season, the line appears poised for the biggest breakout, at least on paper.
Drafting a potential cornerstone left tackle in Matt Kalil can expedite that process. But the two-for-one deal of drafting Kalil and moving Charlie Johnson from left tackle to left guard, widely believed to be his more natural spot, promotes cohesion among a group that finished 28th in pass offense a year ago.
Cutting veterans Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera in March allowed the rebuilding Vikings to get younger while trimming cap space in the process.
Center John Sullivan emerged as one of the game’s best centers last season, earning a five-year, $25-million extension with $10 million guaranteed after showing what he can do while finally healthy.
Second-year right guard Brandon Fusco’s raw strength shows up on film — “he’s putting people on
the ground all the time,” Sullivan says — but he has yet to lock up the starting spot ahead of Joe Berger, Chris DeGeare and injured Geoff Schwartz (sports hernia). However, the gap is widening. Fusco has monopolized the first-team reps. Schwartz should be in the mix once he returns in September.
The Vikings are hoping Phil Loadholt turns flashes of stout play into a consistent campaign in a contract year. The offsides-prone Loadholt can be one of the game’s best right tackles in both the passing and running attack, coach Leslie Frazier said.
As Johnson points out, physical lines need depth because rarely do the same five players finish a full season together. That’s why the Vikings signed Schwartz, a former Panther, to a one-year contract to shore up inside depth, while Berger can play guard or center. DeMarcus Love and Patrick Brown will enter the final two weeks of the preseason as second-string tackles.
The key components of the line can be found chatting before each practice but grunting when it’s time to work.
“I like the idea of a group of guys that goes out, joke around and have fun, but when it’s time to strap it on, we strap it on and we’re assignment-sound and beating people up,” Sullivan said.
The three returning starters say they are better for experiencing a difficult season together. After all, it wasn’t all bad; the Vikings finished 11th in the league in rushing offense at 121 yards per game.
Chemistry is improving, said Loadholt, who has started alongside Sullivan since 2009.
“We have an understanding of how each other is going to react to certain situations,” Loadholt said. “I’m excited to see how we grow.”
The direction of the line will hinge largely on Kalil, the fourth overall NFL draft pick who has given up a few pressures off the edge in the preseason but has looked steady for the most part. Buffalo’s Kyle Williams got past Kalil for a sack on the opening drive last week, and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith beat Kalil wide in the opener to force Ponder to throw it away. But Ponder has said publicly his time in the pocket has increased.
Loadholt said Kalil understands the technical nuances of the game that aren’t flashy but help separate role players from marquee tackles: footwork, proper stance, explosion at the point of attack.
“He gets it,” Loadholt said. “He has a good grasp of the offense and is a very athletic guy. He’s obviously going to be a good football player.”
Fusco moved the pile several times against Buffalo but also “took some licks” against Williams, according to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. The former sixth-round pick out of Division II Slippery Rock might make a few mistakes, but his physical play will be hard for coaches to ignore.
As for Johnson, he’s moving on from what he calls a “whirlwind” 2011 season in which he joined the Vikings in the middle of training camp, without knowing the offense, to replace Bryant McKinnie.
Davidson is a huge fan of Johnson’s toughness, making him a logical candidate for guard, which he had played in the past while in Indianapolis. The biggest adjustment of the past month has been getting used to monitoring defensive tackles and linebackers pre-snap, Johnson said.
Now, Johnson’s goal is simple: He just wants to hit somebody, regardless of position.
“It seems like other people want to care more or care for me,” Johnson said about the speculation surrounding the NFL draft, the Vikings’ prospects of selecting Kalil and Johnson’s inevitable slide to guard. “I feel like I’m going to be one of the five guys playing on Sundays, regardless of where it’s at. I’m just fortunate enough to play this game.”