The Minnesota Vikings last made the Super Bowl following the 1976 season. That year they lost to the Oakland Raiders 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. Meanwhile, the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers stumbled out of the gate, going 0-14. No one back then could have guessed that the Buccaneers would get to the Super Bowl before the Vikings would return, not once, but twice. And, to top it off, they won, unlike the Vikings.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Tampa Bay defeated the Kansas City Chiefs to win their second championship. In their effort, they played the game that the Vikings dream of every Sunday. Tom Brady was an efficient 21/27 passing for 201 yards but added three touchdowns. But most importantly they dominated the trenches. They ran for 145 yards and only allowed one sack. And the defense stifled the Chiefs, sacking Patrick Mahomes three times and pressuring him all night. With two interceptions to top it off, the Bucs showed that they were lightyears ahead of the Vikings. So what did the Minnesota Vikings trenches miss in 2020, and how can they improve them in 2021 to duplicate the Buccaneers’ success?
Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl Dreams Lie In the Trenches
Tampa Bay did all that they could to keep Brady clean starting back in April. The Bucs drafted Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick. After allowing one sack all season, Wirfs saved his best performance for Super Bowl LV. Against the Chiefs, Wirfs not only held his own, but he was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player of the game.
The offensive line also helped Leonard Fournette run 16 times for 89 yards and a touchdown that all but sealed the game. Ronald Jones added 12 carries for 61 yards. Together, they gained 61 yards before contact and were able to provide a north-and-south rushing attack to compliment Brady (or did Brady compliment them?)
The Minnesota Vikings line, meanwhile, provided over 61 yards only three times out of their backup running back. Alexander Mattison disappointed when star running back Dalvin Cook wasn’t on the field. Cook and Mattison should outperform Fournette and Jones any day, with no disrespect to the latter.
Kirk Cousins, meanwhile, was sacked only once in a game four times in 2020. Fittingly, the Vikings were 3-1 in these games, as these games all came in a four-game stretch. Outside of the four-game stretch, the Vikings gave up at least two sacks every other game of the season.
While second-round pick guard/tackle Ezra Cleveland was nowhere near as dominant as Wirfs, he was effective. This was evident as his first start came at the beginning of this four-game stretch. While right guard may not be his future calling card, he has athleticism that shows promise forwards a future move to left or right tackle.
What most affected Super Bowl LV was the effectiveness of Tampa Bay pressuring Mahomes without sending blitzes. Ndamukong Suh led the team with 1.5 sacks while Shaquil Barrett added one of his own. Combine this with the constant pressure of Mahomes and the Bucs were able to control the game on defense.
The Minnesota Vikings line produced at least 1.5 sacks all season on defense. Only one player out of this group, Ifeadi Odenigbo (who led the final roster with 3.5 sacks), has a chance to start in 2021. One player, Jaleel Johnson (with 1.5 sacks), will likely not be coming back in 2021 as he is an unrestricted free agent and has been overwhelmingly underwhelming in his four-year career in Minnesota.
Even forgetting the Super Bowl shows the stark contrast between the Vikings and Buccaneers defenses. Tampa Bay had four players with six or more sacks, and three of the four were players who play along the line of scrimmage. Minnesota’s leading sacker on the season was Yannick Ngakoue, who had the season lead with five sacks in six games. He was traded to the Ravens during bye week, however, and left an already thin unit with even less the final ten games of the season.
How the Minnesota Vikings Can Emulate Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl Success in the Trenches
With the return of Danielle Hunter expected in 2021, the Vikings should get more help along their line. But as the Buccaneers showed, it takes more than one player to make a defensive line a Super Bowl-caliber unit. The Vikings are likely an effective three-technique and another defensive end away from even being considered as a championship unit on defense. On offense, they need to beef up both of their guard spots as Cleveland may not be the best long-term option there. With the 14th overall pick, Minnesota will almost for sure address the defensive or offensive lines. A talented but flawed roster isn’t a player away from the Super Bowl, but a smart off-season approach to the trenches could make them contenders in the NFC again.
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