The Vikings offensive line has taken a demonstrable step forward from a year ago, no question about it. The acquisition of Riley Reiff for the left tackle spot is probably the best move Rick Spielman made in the offseason and rookie Pat Elflein looks like a seasoned veteran at the center spot. And what is more, even when starters Nick Easton and Mike Remmers went down with injury, Jeremiah Sirles and Rashod Hill filled the spots without missing a beat for the most part.
They deserve praise for being a strength, not the weakness they were in 2016. But they do not deserve all the credit for the way the quarterback has been kept clean all year. A lot of that has to go to the presence and mobility of one Case Keenum.
Keenum has been sacked just five times this year through nine games. For what it is worth Sam Bradford was sacked the same number of times in just six quarters of play this year. Granted, four of those came in one game, week five at Chicago, by far the offensive line’s worst performance. But the discrepancy in sacks between the two quarterbacks is fascinating, considering they have had the same five men in front of them. The naked eye can gauge the main reason: Bradford, while he has a stronger and generally more accurate arm, is a statue in the pocket. He extends plays not with his legs so much as by checking down when the pressure nears. Or he takes the sack. Keenum, on the other hand, maneuvers as well as anyone.
This is not meant as a knock against Elflein, Easton or Joe Berger, but Keenum is going to need every ounce of his mobility against the Rams on Sunday. With very few exceptions, the interior line has blocked very well in pass pro and just so-so in the run. But Easton and Elflein have gotten better every game and Elflein is coming off a week where Pro Football Focus graded him as the top center of week 10. That being said, they are going against the best pass-rushing defensive tackle since Warren Sapp on Sunday in Aaron Donald.
And that is just on the interior; Connor Barwin, Matt Longacre and Robert Quinn are no slouches coming off the edge. And the Minnesota offensive tackles, though Keenum was not sacked, did not have their best game against Washington. Keenum faced pressure on 13 of 30 dropbacks and his mobility prevented at least six sacks.
Some were obvious like this one:
Others were just a subtle step-up:
There were also a couple plays where Keenum maneuvered himself into pressure, but had the athleticism to get out of it again. That type of play will have to be stricken from his repertoire for this week’s game.
But for the most part, Keenum’s sense of pressure and ability to find secure footing inside and outside the pocket are big reasons why he remains the starter for the time being. And they are also big reasons why Los Angeles’ fearsome pass rush seems just a hair less frightening than it is for other teams.