The often told yet still underrated story of this Vikings season has been the improvement of their offensive line from last year to this year.
A combination of smart offseason moves (signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers while drafting center Pat Elflein) and relative health have helped the Vikings turn what was a deficiency that ultimately killed their promising 2016 season into what has often times been a strength in 2017.
A switch to a zone blocking scheme has helped fuel a resurgent run game, while QB Case Keenum’s mobility has also helped keep him clean and effective. But you have to have the players to make that work, and by and large the Vikings have had those players on the offensive line.
As the stakes are raised, though, so is the scrutiny. The Vikings’ improved line will be tested in Sunday’s divisional playoff game against New Orleans. Specifically, one matchup with a direct correlation between last year and this year could be significant.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan — a prolific pass rusher and trash-talker, much like the Vikings’ Everson Griffen — had a major impact for the Saints in their playoff-opening 31-26 win over Carolina.
Jordan finished the game with a sack, a tackle for loss and two passes defended. The pressure he got on Cam Newton with Carolina trying to drive for the winning score late helped seal the game for the Saints. Notably, he was often lined up against Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil — the ex-Viking whose combination of injuries and inconsistency contributed to last season’s line woes and led the Vikings to sign Reiff in the offseason.
Jordan praised Matt Kalil’s brother, Ryan, after the game. But he had some pretty strong trash talk when talking about Matt: “I don’t know his first name. Speedbump. Let’s call him Speedbump McGee. That guy.”
Ouch. It’s worth noting that the Vikings at least made an attempt to re-sign Kalil this offseason before turning to Reiff after Kalil joined the Panthers to reunite with his brother.
If the Vikings are going to beat the Saints on Sunday, it stands to reason that Reiff will have to be much more than a speed bump when he’s matched up against Jordan, the son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan.
Kalil actually had a higher grade from Pro Football Focus this year in both overall play and pass blocking than Reiff did, but I’d say 100 out of 100 Vikings fans would say Reiff — particularly in combination with Remmers and very capable swing tackle Rashod Hill — has been an upgrade.