EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –A revamped offensive line has paid off in 2017, and that goes beyond the starting five.
The Vikings added tackles Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff in free agency in addition to drafting center Pat Elflein and guard Danny Isidora. And as for the unit's returning players? They've also demonstrated an increase in performance.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur spoke to Twin Cities media members Thursday about the way depth and versatility have benefitted Minnesota in the wake of recent injuries to the offensive line.
"The guys that have gotten in there, even the ones that were here a year ago that are not new, are improved," Shurmur said. "Rashod [Hill] is one of those guys. We've gotten good reps out of [Jeremiah] Sirles. Jeremiah has done a good job for us. Everyone that has gone in there has done well, and we anticipate it will continue that way."
Hill, whom the Vikings signed off the Jaguars practice squad 13 months ago, has "improved each game," according to Shurmur.
"We knew he was a good player, but the time that he spent playing is going to serve him well as he goes through his career," Shurmur said. "He's done a really good job for us. He's an outstanding pass protector, he's getting better in the run game."
Shurmur also spoke of Sirles' transition from right guard to left tackle at Carolina when Reiff suffered an ankle injury.
The coordinator said it's a tough move to make.
"Moving from New York to L.A., I guess. Well, it'd be more like Detroit to L.A., inside to outside," Shurmur quipped. "But, he handled it well. He's played a lot of snaps at multiple positions, and that's part of the value of Sirles is his ability to play multiple positions and he did a good job for us.
Shurmur explained that besides going from guard to tackle, switching sides also makes things complicated.
"[You] have to play out a different stance, and you're blocking different players," Shurmur said. "And all the communication is different, so calls that tell you to go right tell you to do one thing; when I say go right, you do another, and it does take more than just being able to block your guy."
Here are three other topics covered by Shurmur, Defensive Coordinator George Edwards and Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer.
Shurmur on dealing with a dinged-up offense
Both the Vikings and the Bengals have a longer-than-usual injury report this week, but Shurmur reminded that it's fairly typical when the end of the regular season is approaching.
He said he appreciates that the players have embraced the "next man up" mentality.
"It's more than a cliché; it's real," Shurmur said. "In December in the NFL, it's kind of attrition, and so the players that are up have to go in and have to play.
"We try not to make injuries part of our daily conversation," Shurmur added. "We've got NFL football players on our roster, we expect them to go in there and perform, and they expect that of themselves. And so, it's a credit to our players when they're saying that, because that's how we really feel."
With Kyle Rudolph and Blake Bell both on this week's injury report and their status for Sunday still undetermined, Shurmur assured that a plan will be in place if need be.
"We'll see how it finally plays out on Sunday," Shurmur said. "But we'll put the guys in there that are healthy and ready to go. We'll make the adjustments as we need to, personnel-wise."
Shurmur said that tight end David Morgan, who sat out last week's game with a concussion, is up to speed in the playbook if he plays this weekend and is handed a bigger role.
"He's played a lot of football for us in really all of the groupings," Shurmur said. "He's played in single tight end sets, double tight end sets and three tight end sets, so he knows what to do."
Edwards on Dalton's quick delivery
Since entering the league in 2011, Andy Dalton has been sacked 213 times, 32 of those takedowns having occurred this season so far.
But in each of the past six games, Dalton has not been sacked more than twice.
"Up front, I think they're doing a better job protection-wise," Edwards said of Cincinnati's offense. "He is getting rid of the ball on the count. The ball is coming out quick, so that is something that we have to be conscious of this week."
Minnesota's defense is growing accustomed to opposing quarterbacks getting the ball out quick in an effort to evade the Vikings pass rush. When asked how he keeps the defensive linemen patient in the scenario that's becoming a trend, Edwards said, "We all have a job to do."
"We anticipate what it is, and they understand. Our coverages, along with our blitzes, along with our rush, they're all tied together," Edwards said. "Everybody understands they're counting on each other for us to get it executed, especially in the situations in third down or red zone where people are trying to get the ball out quicker on us."
Edwards illustrated how Danielle Hunter is still affecting the quarterback without having the high sack numbers on the stat sheet. Hunter has 6.0 sacks this season.
"They're still making the quarterback have to make quick decisions, which helps us on the coverage end of it," Edwards said. "Just rushing up the field, opening up lanes and opening up throwing lanes. They understand the concept that we're doing, and we approach each week and understand their importance of their role in that.
"Whether they're getting chipped or not getting chipped, hats off to those guys," Edwards added. "They're not selfish guys. They're going to do the rush plan that week to make sure the quarterbacks still keep getting the ball out."
Priefer on special teams success and room for improvement
Priefer is pleased with the Vikings special teams performance over the past two weeks.
He had expressed frustration following the Lions game on Thanksgiving Day but has seen improvement in a number of areas since then.
"We've covered a lot better. We got our punt return game going a little bit there against Carolina. It wasn't enough; we still need to be productive. We gave one rep away there, the first one there, we didn't do a good enough job. Kickoff coverage was good, punt coverage was good – we pinned them at the 2-yard line. It was a huge play for us."
Keeping with the mentality of Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, however, there are always ways to be better.
Priefer said he would like to see the kickoff return game "get going" and that it's affected by a few different things.
"We've got to block better. We've got to be more effective finishing our blocks," Priefer said. I think the decisions were pretty good. I know one at the end of the game is when we were trying to make a play, 1:47 to go, we're down by a touchdown. We were one block away from making a big play there, but the difference between 22 and 25 is not that big of a deal. But, we did take some time off the clock, and I think that's what hurt us a little bit.
"But, no, I think Marcus [Sherels] is doing a good job in his decision making," Priefer continued. "He was much more aggressive in his punt return game than he was a week ago in Atlanta, and it really showed. It really helped us with field position all day long."