Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
With a payroll deeply devoted to a high-priced quarterback and numerous defensive stars on second contracts, the key for Rick Spielman and Co. to sustain the Minnesota Vikings’ success going forward is strong drafting and development of young, first-contract contributors.
Second-round rookie tackle Brian O’Neill and second-year UDFA linebacker Eric Wilson are two examples of the type of player the Vikings will need to groom effectively over the next several years. Both made valuable contributions in Minnesota’s 27-9 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday to keep the Vikings’ playoff destiny in their own hands.
Playing in front of friends and family in his home state of Michigan, Wilson recorded a sack in Minnesota’s stifling defensive effort. And the right tackle O’Neill has not been charged with a sack by Pro Football Focus since he took the starting job in Week 6.
For Wilson, the task has been difficult. Earlier in the year, he was forced to fill in for Anthony Barr, a uniquely-skilled backer that teams are forced to account for in their gameplan. On Sunday, Wilson did his best Eric Kendricks impression, trying to replace the team’s tackles leader at middle linebacker.
“I think the major thing really was to prepare,” said Wilson. “I watched a ridiculous amount of film, and I asked a lot of questions in our meeting room. A.B. and E.K. gave me all the pointers that they could, and we always talk football all day long. Even later today, I’m going to hang out with them and I’m sure we’re going to talk football then. So, it all works together. I think just communicating honestly between each other and making sure we’re all on the same page, it helps a lot.”
Wilson struggled in his previous start at Chicago, but he departed Detroit leaving a better impression. He could be given more responsibility next season if the Vikings do not retain Barr, who’s in the final year of his contract.
“I don’t know if you could tell,” said Wilson, “but I was hyped up the whole game ready to do whatever I had to do to help us win.”
While Wilson has been trying to match the impact of the team’s starting linebackers, O’Neill has been asked to play a part in the Vikings’ offensive line recalibration. In the last two weeks — both victories — the Vikings offensive line has permitted just seven pressures in each game. That’s a solid step up from allowing 29 pressures in a Week 3 loss against Buffalo, or 17 in a Week 11 loss at Chicago.
Head coach Mike Zimmer credits the team’s balance over the last two weeks where they’ve carried the ball 68 combined times for 320 yards and 4.7 yards per carry.
“I think the last couple games they have [had an edge],” said Zimmer of the offensive line. “I think they knew that we were going to run the football a little bit more. And again, I’m not second guessing anything we’ve done in the past, but it’s hard to sit back and back up 40 times a game as you’re absorbing blows that way, whereas when you’re basically trying to run the football some you’re going forward.”
O’Neill credits right guard Mike Remmers for his development throughout the season. The Vikings weren’t sure if they would get contributions from the rookie this quickly, but Remmers — a converted right tackle — has been able to communicate the nuances of the position to O’Neill, who has gone up against many of the same opponents Remmers faced a season ago.
“I think it can be something as [little] as the difference of two inches where your hands are placed on the backside of a zone play,” said O’Neill, “how your second step hits the ground and at what angle you’re going to come out of your stance. Little things like that. I know I got to block this guy, but what are the fine details of doing that in terms of footwork, pad level, angles, hand placement, all those kind of things that go into the finer points of playing offensive line.”
While it’s easy for young offensive linemen to get overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL, O’Neill has stayed poised. Wilson, likewise, is working on slowing down his approach. Zimmer said Monday that Wilson’s energy resembles that of a younger Kendricks.
“[Linebackers coach] Adam [Zimmer] talked actually after the game,” said Mike Zimmer. “He said a lot of things are like Eric Kendricks. He kind of gets so excited and wants to get somewhere that he sometimes gets there too fast and gets out of position, but the game’s slowing down for him and understanding where he needs to be, I think.”
Both Wilson and O’Neill have been part of resurgent units. The linebackers struggled in the first quarter of the season, while the line has struggled for much of the year. The undrafted linebacker is hoping to prove he belongs in an otherwise-strong corps, while the first-year tackle wants to be part of the solution.
“It’s not about the plays, it’s about the players,” said O’Neill. “And for us, we take a lot of pride. I don’t care what the play is, we’ve got a job to do, and we’re going to do it, and I think no matter what at the end of the day, if we execute at a higher level than we have at times this season we’re going to have success.”