The Vikings fourth overall pick in 2012 and first-round favorite among draft analysts, Matt Kalil was hailed not only as an excellent pick for the Vikings’ needs, but fantastic value as well: one of the best players in the draft, regardless of position.
His rookie season bore it out, too. Much better than Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher have been in 2013, his rookie year saw him as potentially one of the ten best tackles in the league already and with room to grow.
But his 2013 hasn’t been nearly so great, and it’s been a struggle for Vikings fans to see such a highly touted pick do so poorly, especially after a Pro Bowl appearance just the other year.
Minor alarm bells started ringing in the offseason when it was revealed the Kalil lost 20-30 pounds due to pneumonia in the offseason, which he evidently contracted during the season just before the Week 16 game against the Houston Texans.
Those three weeks he played with the illness were not kind, as he suffered in pass protection against Green Bay’s Clay Matthews and only ever looked on top of things against a critically poor pass-rusher in Connor Barwin.
This year, Kalil comes out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd-best tackle in their “Pass Blocking Efficiency” metric, which weights sacks, hits and hurries and divides them by the number of pass blocking snap that each player participated in.
That ranking is a far cry from his expected improvement—he ranked 6th just a year ago.
Kalil’s problems for the year could have been spotted early. In training camp, he struggled early and often. In addition to that, his preseason play was plagued with mediocrity.
It was easy to dismiss his poor play then—at USC, he always had a reputation as a “gamer,” a player who looked better in games than in practice—but now he is well past reasonable excuses.
So far this year, Kalil is showcasing the same strengths he had in 2012—awareness, blitz recognition and quick feet. For the most part, those haven’t gone away.
But Kalil’s weaknesses from last year are magnified. He seems to be playing with less strength than last year and it’s certainly not helping that his leverage is too high, as it often was in 2012 but with much more consequence this time around.
As has always been the case, he’s been much better against pass-rushers split wide of the tackles than pass-rushers head up or on a shoulder. Last year, when up against teams whose defensive ends regularly split wide or who generally rushed outside linebackers, Kalil gave up fewer pressures per game.
In fact, his average pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in those games was 1.3, which would make him the fourth-best pass blocker in the NFL over a 16-game season. But against pass-rushers lined up tight to the offensive line, he graded just below average at -0.02 (ranking him at about 45 or so of 80).
The statistics back it up, too. His Pass Blocking Efficiency—once again, a measure graded by Pro Football Focus—is an astounding 97.2 against wide split defensive ends and outside linebackers, the third-best in the NFL. But against more traditional base defensive ends, Kalil’s PBE was a pedestrian 95.0, which would have only garnered him a 28th overall ranking.
These differences are stark and don’t seem to be much of a coincidence. Despite a very poor game against Detroit and it’s fast Wide-9 scheme designed to move defensive ends out wide to create space, Kalil still has performed much better against mixed or rushers split wide instead of pass-rushers without much room.
While he hasn’t yet given up a sack this season per PFF, he has allowed a significant amount of pressure to reach the quarterback. But it’s no coincidence that his best pass-blocking game (no sacks, hits or hurries) came against a 3-4 team—Pittsburgh.
Against a mixed-front team in Cleveland, he had mixed success, but allowed both of his hits and the hurry to come up when his primary assignment was a rusher aligned inside, given Sheard’s movement around the line.
The pattern isn’t completely true; his first game of the season was against a Lions team that nominally de-emphasized the “Wide 9” technique that they were criticized for in 2012, but still employed it heavily against the Vikings. This was perhaps his worst game of the season and it was against what was supposed to be his strength.
But after that, a poor game pass blocking against the Giants and the Bears solidified what looks to be his modus operandi—dominant defensive ends who work well in a phone booth gave Kalil fits.
The reason that he’s much better against pass rushers in space is what made him an attractive prospect at USC. With recognition and reaction, he can adjust his leverage and technique to opposing players. But when lined up with little space, he’s vulnerable to instinctive moves or moves that use much more strength at the line.
In particular, he’s been prey to counter moves to the inside (one of Jared Allen’s strengths after a weak start to 2010 forced him to reevaluate his approach). Kalil’s first pressure given up in the Detroit game came late in the second quarter on a play eventually nullified through a penalty on Darius Slay. Willie Young performs his first inside counter of the day after going outside for nearly every previous pass-rush and he gets to Ponder who gets rid of the ball right away.
Kalil, cognizant of having been beat to the inside on the previous play then gives up pressure on the outside. Ponder scrambles to avoid it (left, a poor decision on Ponder’s part) and throws an interception when trying to find Greg Jennings.
The most obvious pressure again comes from Willie Young late in the game, forcing Ponder to scramble—a swim move to the inside when the Vikings were down 10 and attempting to mount a comeback with six and a half minutes on the board.
On the next drive, Ezekiel Ansah sets up to go outside, then grabs half a sack after countering inside. Then immediately after the two-minute warning, Ansah doesn’t even disguise his intentions to shoot inside the “B” gap on a three-gap twist from Ndamukong Suh and “A” gap pressure from Nick Fairley.
Kalil not only loses Ansah entirely, he’s left blocking air afterwards as he doesn’t pick up on Suh moving outside. Suh gets naked pressure against Ponder, who has to dump the ball off. It is entirely possible that Kalil is responsible for two pressures on that play.
In addition to all of these problems, the line has switched to silent counts in road games, which causes some specific issues with anticipation and his first step.
But the biggest culprit and something perhaps responsible for the leverage issues and potential strength concerns is the fact that Kalil has been listed as questionable throughout October with a back injury and it’s something that may have been bugging him earlier.
Like most problems, there is no single overriding issue and it may not be easy to solve. Adjustments to new offensive line strategies will solve themselves, but technique adjustments to enterprising pass-rushers can proceed at any pace. Kalil, of course, will want to get those issues fixed as soon as possible, but those fixes can range from simple to complex.
His hand placement is a little higher this year, so there is a good chance that targeting lower on the opponent’s chest plate will help, but the more important adjustment will have to be how he uses his arms and leverages against his opponent’s inside limbs. Once a pass-rusher gets hip-to-hip on either side, the offensive lineman has lost, so it’s not as simple as it might sound.
If he can keep his elbows underneath the crook of his opponents arms—at least on the inside—this should resolve itself quickly. But it’s unreasonably to ask an offensive lineman to win the leverage battle off the snap on every single play. So he needs an adjustment with either his feet, hips or hands to account for the times when his opponent simply goes lower.
As for the injury bug, there’s no clear evidence that it’s very much responsible. His worst game was the first game of the year, which has its own host of issues and his best game was well after he started being placed on the injury list as questionable—at home against the Panthers.
There should be little doubt that Kalil can fix these issues, but the question remains as to how soon he will. The Vikings seem to be heading into the rest of the season in evaluation mode, and if they wish to proceed full bore, they’ll need their best players to give space to the others so that the Vikings can make the best decision.