On Friday, about 48 hours before the kickoff of the NFC Championship Game between the Vikings and Eagles, I spent entirely too much time fixated on one particular worry when it came to the Vikings’ chances: their offensive line — and subsequently Case Keenum’s ability to handle an pressure given up — against the Eagles’ defensive front four.
It was the one area where Philadelphia seemed to have a distinct advantage. The Vikings’ offensive line, while much improved as a unit during the regular season, struggled at times even while compiling a 13-3 record. What appeared to be some pass blocking deficiencies were mitigated largely by Keenum’s ability to both avoid sacks when pressured and to still excel when throwing under pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus — a good tool, though not a perfect one — Keenum faced pressure on 39.3 percent of his regular-season dropbacks, the third-most of any NFL quarterback. But he was sacked on just 10.4 percent of those pressures, the second-lowest rate. And his passer rating under pressure of 78.5 was eighth in the league.
Against the Saints and a strong front four, that deteriorated. Keenum was still pressured at a relatively high rate (32.6 percent of his dropbacks), but his passer rating under duress was a paltry 5.1 — by far the worst of any QB in the division round. He threw a key interception under pressure that could have been the narrative had the Vikings not produced the Minneapolis Miracle.
After studying those contrasting statistics, and considering that the Vikings had made the decision to start Rashod Hill at tackle against the Eagles while moving Mike Remmers to guard — a decision designed to get their five best offensive linemen on the field in the wake of Nick Easton’s injury — I was legitimately worried about the Eagles game.
Remmers was by far the Vikings highest-graded tackle this season, finishing with a PFF grade of 69.6. Riley Reiff was at 48.6 and Hill was at 43.6. Even with five players they liked on the field, could the Vikings as they were aligned keep the Eagles from getting pressure? And when the Eagles got pressure, how would Keenum perform?
I quickly shushed those worries, though, and looked for any statistic that would more closely align with my bold prediction: Vikings 27, Eagles 10. One drive in, that looked pretty good as the Vikings marched down the field for a 7-0 lead. But in the end, the offensive line and Keenum’s poor play under duress told much of the story of the day — at least the part we could reasonably predict, unlike the totally out-of-nowhere collapse of a typically stout defense.
Per PFF, the offensive line ended up yielding pressure on 24 of Keenum’s 50 dropbacks, a full 48 percent. Some of that is a function of playing from behind, to be sure, since the Eagles knew the Vikings were going to pass on several downs as the score became more lopsided.
But plenty of it happened early — including the play that changed the entire game, when Chris Long beat Hill on an outside move and hit Keenum as he threw, resulting in a pick-six. Now, again, here’s where PFF is imperfect. It’s possible Keenum dropped back too far on that play and was to blame for the pressure. And he certainly could have stepped up in the pocket since the pressure came from the side he could see.
Still, all games are graded using the same tools. Hill and Reiff were marked by PFF as having allowed a combined 14 pressures against the Eagles. The other six tackles playing in the conference championship games (two each for the Patriots, Jaguars and Eagles) allowed just 13 combined. Remmers graded out well at guard, but overall the Vikings had a dismal pass blocking efficiency (again, per PFF) of 59.5.
To put that in perspective, all three other teams in the conference championship games had at least an 83 in that category. To put that further in perspective: The 2016 Vikings had a pass blocking efficiency of 75.1, ranking 23rd in the NFL. It might have been even worse had they abandoned any notion of a downfield passing attack midway through the year.
This year’s Vikings were much improved with a pass blocking efficiency mark of 79.3, good for 13th in the NFL during the regular season. Their tackles — primarily Reiff and Remmers, though Hill subbed for both of them at times because of injuries — allowed 78 total pressures after last year’s injury-ravaged gang of tackles allowed 120. That’s a major upgrade.
But an offensive line that both from the eye test and from statistical measure was improved from 2016 to 2017 struggled at the worst time. Making matters worse, Keenum had just a 60.4 passer rating under pressure against the Eagles — far better than his showing against the Saints but nowhere near his solid 78.5 regular-season mark. That 60.4 mark would have ranked him just 23rd among passers in the regular season.
It’s not all a blame game. There’s at least equal (if not more) to be doled out as credit to an Eagles defense that has been doing this all year. Expecting Keenum to keep avoiding sacks while avoiding turnovers … while also expecting an improved but vulnerable offensive line to keep the Eagles at bay one week after struggling against the Saints was probably too much to ask.
The potential problem was sitting in plain sight long before Sunday’s kickoff, even if I preferred to ignore it.