EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The hand-wringing began early in Mankato.
Left tackle Riley Reiff, who was a priority signing for the Vikings in free agency, suffered an injury on the opening day of training camp.
In stepped Rashod Hill, whom the Vikings signed late in 2016 off Jacksonville’s practice squad.
Hill played in the 2016 regular-season finale, making his NFL debut on Jan. 1, 2017. He tried to make the most of that and every rep in Reiff’s absence.
Reiff bounced back and started 15 games this season, but Hill was asked to bookend the other end of the line for six consecutive games because of injuries to Mike Remmers, another priority free agent addition.
Hill started for Reiff against Cincinnati on the day that the Vikings clinched the NFC North. After left guard Nick Easton suffered a fractured ankle against the Packers, and with center Pat Elflein out against the Bears, Hill started at right tackle.
The Vikings moved right guard Joe Berger to center, Remmers to right guard and Jeremiah Sirles started at left guard in the 2017 finale.
On Sunday, Minnesota lined up Reiff at left tackle, Remmers at left guard, Elflein at center, Berger at right guard and Hill at right tackle.
On the game’s final play — the 61-yard walk-off touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs — the offensive line gave Keenum time and a clean window.
Former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger broke down the protection in this video:
Hill was tasked with blocking Cam Jordan, a First-Team All-Pro, and had late help on the play from Berger.
Keenum found Diggs for the winner, and a ruckus ensued. In addition to the screams of teammates and more than 66,000 fans, Hill heard encouraging words from Jordan.
“Cameron Jordan asked me what year this was, and I said, ‘It ain’t nothing but my second year,’ ” Hill said. “He was like, ‘Man, you’re a solid player.’ And I’m like, ‘Man, you gave me a full 60 minutes of it.’ That’s what I told him after the game – ‘Man, you gave me a whole 60 minutes of it.’ I think I did a pretty good job of it this year, though. Just filling in when I need to fill in, whatever I need to do to help the team win.”
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Jordan was “a tough guy to block” and he thought the offensive line “did some good things” against the Saints.
“Remmers being on the left side, [Rashod] Hill getting a lot of work on the right side and getting [Pat] Elflein back,” Zimmer said. “I think there was a lot of good things that happened there.”
Zimmer was asked about the decision to move Remmers to left guard and bring Hill in rather than going with Sirles at left guard and Remmers at right tackle. He said it was “because I thought he was the best player. Then I asked him about how he would feel about going on the left. He said, ‘Great’. So, that’s what we did.”
Two different halves
The Vikings limited Drew Brees to 8-of-18 passing for 117 yards and intercepted him twice in the first half to build a 17-0 lead. Brees, however, completed 17 of 22 passes in the second half for 177 yards and three touchdowns. New Orleans twice capitalized on favorable field position. The Saints began one drive at the Minnesota 30 (after an interception) and another at the Minnesota 40 (after a partially blocked punt).
“Well, they made some plays,” Zimmer said. “They’ve got some guys that are tough to defend. They hit some balls on us. I told the defense it was going to be a dog fight. We knew it wasn’t going to finish 17 to nothing. They get in their fast-break mode, and you have a guy like Drew Brees throwing the ball all over the place and knowing where to go and getting the ball out.”
Zimmer said there were times when the Vikings “covered the heck out of them” but the Saints made a play, and there were other times when “we didn’t end up covering them quite close enough, or were two steps too short of where we were supposed to be, and they took advantage of it.”
Harris on filling in
When the Vikings lost Andrew Sendejo to a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit by Michael Thomas, the Vikings turned to Anthony Harris.
Harris made three starts on the season (Packers, Browns and Rams) in filling in for Sendejo and came up big on a run blitz by making first contact with Alvin Kamara in the backfield to prevent the Saints from converting a third-and-1 with 29 seconds left in the game.
Brian Robison helped finish off the tackle for loss that kept the Vikings hopes alive.
Harris, who forced and recovered an important fumble against the Rams, said he and teammates just try to stay prepared for when the team needs them.
“There’s other guys who have gotten their numbers called in different positions, different scenarios, and that’s been me a few times,” Harris said. “I think everybody here is just going to do the extra studying and preparing yourself for no matter what comes.”
Zimmer said Sendejo is “doing a lot better” and was the first player to greet him in the locker room after the game.
Officials initially threw a flag for the hit on Sendejo and picked it up, which angered Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes said he reviewed the play on film and concluded that “it wasn’t a dirty hit.”
“[Thomas] was running his route, and he just braced himself for the hit on ’Dejo. At that moment, I thought it was dirty. But when I look at it on film, it wasn’t dirty at all.”
Added Zimmer: “I don’t know if they were trying to pick him, or if they just got tangled up. He hit helmet-to-helmet, obviously. I don’t know the intent of it. We’ll probably turn it into the league and see what they say.”
On to Philadelphia
The enjoyment of such a thrilling victory was intense but also brief for players and coaches, who are now turning their attention to the Eagles.
Zimmer was asked about trying to use the emotions to propel the team in the NFC Championship.
“I think, like everything, that one is done and gone with, and we’re moving on to Philadelphia now,” Zimmer said.