EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Shotgun formation, empty backfield, five potential pass catchers spread wide.
The Vikings weren’t expecting an 80-yard touchdown on their first play Sunday in Chicago. But they were hoping for positive yardage.
In theory, quarterback Christian Ponder had his eyes on a pair of crossing routes with Kyle Rudolph and Jerome Simpson zigging across the middle of the field. Given time, Ponder might have also moved to Michael Jenkins as a third read and even used Adrian Peterson or Jerome Felton as safety valves.
Instead, the Vikings’ opening drive was swallowed up 2.4 seconds after the first snap. That’s all it took for Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton to beat right guard Brandon Fusco inside with an elementary swim move, also darting past John Sullivan and engulfing Ponder for a 9-yard loss.
So much for a fast start in a high-stakes road game.
“I overstepped the guy,” Fusco said. “I looked outside and tried to give a hand for Sully. But I missed my hand and (Melton) kind of just got between us both. … That’s on me.”
That was Fusco’s most glaring error Sunday and evidence of his continued struggles. At the same time, it provided an opening for Geoff Schwartz to become the Vikings’ preferred right guard.
For the first time this season, Schwartz was on the field more than Fusco in Chicago, playing 36 of 66 offensive snaps.
On Wednesday, coach Leslie Frazier said Fusco would remain his starter. But it’s clear the opening for Schwartz has grown wider. The Vikings have used the right guard rotation — “RG2,” anyone? — for six games now. And Frazier has tried to put a positive spin on the strategy, believing it’s giving two players a chance to develop.
“We think we’re getting the best of both worlds,” he said.
Still, as Fusco’s inconsistency has spiked, the coaching staff has grown concerned with his confidence.
Said offensive line coach Jeff Davidson: “We need Brandon to go back to the basics and fundamentals of things and be able to target one thing and make sure he’s not thinking about too many things at once. That’s when it starts clouding up.”
Fusco admits there have been significant challenges to operating in a rotation but has also owned his struggles.
“Getting into a rhythm in a game is tough when (another guy) is switching in,” he said. “But it’s a coach’s decision, and I’ve got to go with it. And I put myself in this position. I’ve allowed Geoff to get some reps.”
Now preparing for his 12th NFL start, Fusco knows life won’t get any easier Sunday at Lambeau Field. Green Bay’s attacking 3-4 defense will require Fusco not only to be both quick and alert in space but also to keep his mind centered with the varied pressures, stunts and blitzes that Packers coordinator Dom Capers likes to mix in.
He realizes the Bears sensed his struggles Sunday and kept attacking.
“They’re picking on me a little bit,” Fusco said. “And I haven’t really been playing that well. I know that. I need to get back to my game — being physical, keeping my head up and on a swivel.”
In meetings, Vikings coaches have shown Fusco that his pass blocking has sputtered in big part because he’s too often being overaggressive and losing patience.
The quick fix, Davidson said, is polishing up the fundamentals and not overthinking.
“This can be a simple game,” Davidson said. “Most of the time, it’s a one-on-one block. And if you’re playing with proper technique, you make it a lot easier for yourself. You can overcomplicate it if you allow yourself to. So with Brandon we need to keep going back to basics and making sure he doesn’t overcomplicate things.”
Schwartz has played well at times during his relief stints, showing a promising combination of size, toughness and intelligence. But he, too, has heard urges from Davidson to play faster.
“With a lot of our guys, it seems like when they improve in one area, something else tends to falter,” Davidson said. “We need to get to a point where a guy is good and stable at that one thing and then gets better at something else, too. Right now, we’re spinning our wheels a lot. It happens. But we have to minimize that.”