EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings offensive line faced extreme adversity prior to the start of the 2018 season, when offensive line coach Tony Sparano passed away unexpectedly just two days before training camp opened.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer moved Clancy Barone (formerly tight ends coach) to the offensive line and promoted assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko to co-lead with Barone.
The Vikings finished their season with eight offensive linemen on the active roster, and each started at least two games during the 2018 campaign.
Add to it that Minnesota utilized six different starting combinations up front, and it perhaps is reflective of the unit's season, a roller-coaster 17 weeks.
The group entered the 2018 season without second-year center Pat Elflein, who continued to rehab injuries suffered at the end of the 2017 season. For the first three games, the Vikings started LT Riley Reiff, LG Tom Compton (signed in free agency), C Brett Jones (acquired from the Giants via trade), RG Mike Remmers and RT Rashod Hill.
Elflein returned on a pitch count against the Bills in Week 3, before resuming his starting role on the road against the Rams in Week 4. He started every game the remainder of the season.
Hill started the first five games at right tackle. When Reiff suffered a foot injury against the Eagles, Hill was moved to left tackle and replaced on the right side by rookie Brian O'Neill, whom the Vikings drafted out of Pittsburgh in the second round.
Compton was sidelined for Weeks 8 and 9 and replaced by second-year guard Danny Isidora. When Reiff returned in Week 9 after a three-game absence, the Vikings opted to leave O'Neill at right tackle and transition Hill instead to a reserve role. Remmers was the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games.
O'Neill's athleticism was impressive in his rookie campaign. Zimmer said he appreciated the way the rookie helped on some occasions to get to the second level in the run game.
"I think the big part of it was, how quick can he adapt in the passing game? He continued to get better and better every day," Zimmer said. "Sometimes he gets out of position, but he's able to use his athletic ability to recover. For an offensive lineman, I think a lot of it is – in the passing game – being able to recover. Because you're going to get some athletic defensive ends, and they're going to put you in a bad spot once in a while, but can you get out of that bad spot and can you still protect the quarterback?
"I think he's done that, and it just kind of showed and showed and showed," Zimmer said. "I guess we just kind of felt like it was time [to make him a starter]."
Minnesota allowed 40 sacks of quarterback Kirk Cousins, which tied for 10th-most in the league with Detroit's Matthew Stafford. The number of sacks was a jump from last season, when the Vikings allowed just 27 takedowns of Case Keenum (22) and Sam Bradford (five). It is worth noting, however, that a number of factors attribute to sack totals.
The Vikings struggled to find consistency in the run game all year, having one game with just 22 yards on the ground and another with 220. After notching 13 contests with more than 100 rushing yards in 2017, Minnesota had only five such games in 2018.
Zimmer said at the conclusion of the season, when the Vikings finished 8-7-1 and fell short of their postseason goals, that he believed the offensive line had lost a bit of an edge and plans to restore that "nasty" mentality for the 2019 campaign.
1 — Although the Vikings utilized six different starting lineups on offensive line, they were able to stick with just one (Reiff - Compton - Elflein - Remmers - O'Neill) for the seven-game stretch after the bye.
The offensive line's most memorable moment wasn't directly a fascinating play, but it did occur during a game.
When the Vikings hosted the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 12, they knew they'd need a solid performance across the board to come away with a division win. The offensive line helped that happen, enabling Cousins to throw for 342 yards and three touchdowns en route to a victory. Minnesota's first touchdown occurred when Cousins connected with Dalvin Cook for a 26-yard score, the running back's first career receiving TD.
Most memorable, however, turned out to be the celebration after the catch.
As soon as Cook got into the end zone, he dropped the ball and motioned for teammates to join him for "limbo." Tom Compton and Rashod Hill quickly stood in as the two posts, lifting Adam Thielen above their heads as the bar. Even O'Neill got in on the fun, jumping in between receiver Stefon Diggs to shimmy – not so gracefully – beneath Thielen.
13 starts, 13 games played (793 offensive snaps = 75.5 percent)
14 starts, 14 games played (837 offensive snaps = 79.6 percent)
13 starts, 14 games played (863 offensive snaps = 82.1 percent)
16 starts, 16 games played (1,048 offensive snaps = 99.7 percent)
11 starts, 15 games played (800 offensive snaps = 76.1 percent)
8 starts, 15 games played (529 offensive snaps = 50.3 percent)
3 starts, 13 games played (191 offensive snaps = 18.2 percent)
2 starts, 13 games played (214 offensive snaps = 20.4 percent)
View the best 30 catches caught on camera by the Vikings receiving corps throughout the 2018 season.
2 Highest highs
1. After logging four consecutive games with under 100 yards rushing – including a road game against the Bears in Week 11 with just 22 yards on the ground – the Vikings impressed against the Dolphins in Week 15.
Behind the offensive line, Minnesota rushed for an incredible 220 yards under Interim Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski in his first game calling plays. Cook led the team with 136 yards on 19 carries, and Latavius Murray added 15 carries for 68 yards. The backs scored two touchdowns and one touchdown, respectively, on the ground.
The game marked the Vikings first with more than 200 rushing yards since Week 16 of the 2015 campaign, when Minnesota racked up 218 yards against the Giants.
2. In Week 16, the Vikings picked up a second win over the division-rival Lions, this time at Detroit. Although Cousins was sacked twice, the offensive line helped the quarterback go 21-of-28 passing for 253 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, with a season-high passer rating of 137.9.
Minnesota also rushed for exactly 100 yards, marking only the fifth time (but second consecutive) that the benchmark was reached during the 2018 season.
2 Lowest lows
1. A glaring low spot for the Vikings offense overall was the Week 3 contest against the Bills. Minnesota rushed an abysmal six times (including two scrambles by Cousins) for 14 yards and did not attempt a run play at all in the second half. Mike Boone and Murray were stopped for a gain of 0 and loss of 1, respectively, and Cousins was sacked four times for a loss of 18 yards.
The Vikings got behind the 8-ball early, when Cousins was sacked in each of his first two series and fumbled both times. It seemed one thing after another went poorly for Minnesota, who ultimately fell 27-6 to Buffalo.
2. The earlier-mentioned game at Chicago was another low point for the offensive line. The Vikings rushed 14 times for just 22 yards. Cook was stopped behind the line of scrimmage four times and Murray twice. Cousins led a comeback effort in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late as the Vikings lost 25-20.
"Playing next to Mike Remmers has really helped me a lot. I can't say enough about his communication and his mindset and attitude and work ethic. The guy I work with the most in the room is one of the hardest workers and sets a really good example for me in how to prepare and how to be a pro. So with those two things, the attention to detail in practice and having Mike next to me, I think it allows us to go into every practice and have a purpose and not just go through the motions, and continually make a conscious effort to try to improve. … That's one of the things that I'm going to continue to have to do, and [I'm] going to continue to have to do it throughout my whole career."
— O'Neill on progress he made throughout his rookie season
"I think we just want to be a balanced offense, be able to run the ball and do play actions and dropback and be efficient in all areas of the offense. There's some that we're doing well and some we're not doing well, so we've just got to get back to work, find balance and get better at specific areas."
— Elflein on the offensive line's struggle with inconsistency