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Improved guard play is key for the Vikings success in 2023

On Jan. 15, 2023, the Minnesota Vikings 13-win season ended heartbreakingly to the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card round.

Now, there is plenty of blame to go around. The Vikings defense gave up 431 yards to the NFL’s No. 18 yardage offense. But the Vikings were alive with two minutes to play, but on a crucial 4th and 8, Kirk Cousins infamously checked the ball down to T.J Hockenson, who came nowhere close to picking up the first down.

While it is easy to say that Cousins should not have even thought about going to Hockenson, let’s take a closer look at this play. Upfront, tackles Christian Darrisaw and Oli Udoh do their part to keep pressure off Cousins. But, within the interior offensive line, pro-bowler Dexter Lawrence drives left guard Ezra Cleveland back into the face of the Vikings QB.

Realistically, even if Cousins could quickly look back to the other side of the field to see K.J. Osborn coming open, he would’ve been hit with the impact not allowing the ball to get there, or he would’ve been sacked. The season-ending play for the Vikings was a microcosm of what presented issues for the offense in 2022 and remains an important question heading into the 2023 season; the guard position.

The importance of a good pass-blocking guard in today’s NFL

Looking at the NFL’s final four last season, the two remaining AFC and NFC teams possessed at-least one guard that performed well in pass protection.

The Kansas City Chiefs Joe Thuney and Trey Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ first and 31st guards in terms of pass blocking. Landon Dickerson and Issac Seumalo ranked ninth and tenth. Alex Cappa of the Cincinnati Bengals placed 22nd, while Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford of the San Francisco 49ers graded out in the top 50.

It was a different story for the Vikings. While Cleveland was the eighth-best guard in the NFL, it boasted a sensational 79.7 run-blocking grade, fourth among all guards. In the passing game, Cleveland finished with a 54.1 passing grade, 58th out of 77 eligible players at the position.

On the other side of Cleveland, rookie Ed Ingram also finished with a high 64.2 run-blocking grade, 27th in the league, but his 42.6 pass-blocking grade was one of the worst in the NFL. Only Andrus Peat, Liam Eichenberg, Kenyon Green, and Dan Skipper performed worse in that metric for the 2022 season.

Cleveland and Ingram’s struggles is not a recipe for success for Kirk Cousins

It was evident through Netflix’s Quarterback series that Cousins played the 2022 season through much pain, more than we thought.

The hit he took against the Washington Commanders, which removed him from the game, came due to Ingram allowing Daron Payne to cross his face for a direct impact as he released the ball.

The numbers proved that he is the most-hit quarterback in the NFL. For the 2022 season, Cousins was knocked down 84 times, the most in the NFL. His 46 sacks ranked fourth in the league.

It’s essential to understand where all this pressure is funneling in from. Cleveland allowed 53 pressures and 20 hits during the 2022 season, while Ingram gave up 58 pressures, 18 hits, and 23.9% of Cousins’ sacks according to PFF. In comparison, Garrett Bradbury, Darrisaw, and Brian O’Neil combined to give up 14 hits and 68 pressures.

Will we see improvement from the guard position in 2023?

The Vikings elected not to address the guard position in both the draft and free agency, but a recent move may have speculated that they are aware of a weakness in a talented offense whether they admit it or not.

On Tuesday, Minnesota hosted free agent guard Dalton Risner on a visit. Risner previously was a four-year starter for the Denver Broncos. In 2022, he finished with a 72.6 pass-blocking grade, 21st among guards. Kevin O’Connell spoke about Risner’s visit with the team without talking down about the current guys in the locker room in contrast to the Mike Zimmer regime.

What makes this visit interesting is that he plays the same position as Cleveland. Going into his fourth season, Cleveland has shown what he is, a good run blocker that struggles in the passing game. He’s naturally a tackle, which the Vikings originally drafted him to be, and he’s also in a contract year. Signing Risner will likely mean he’ll compete with Cleveland for the starting job.

As for Ingram, he was put into the fire as a starter in year one, and the Vikings let him have his ups and downs. He is a powerful human being that doesn’t get pushed around, but many of his issues can be ironed out as he progresses through his NFL career, ahem, not tripping up Cousins.

Aside from Cole Strange, every interior offensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds including first-round picks – Green, Zion Johnson, and Tyler Linderbaum and later-round selections Luke Goedeke, Luke Fortner, and Dylan Parham – weren’t impressive in pass protection as it takes time for most offensive linemen to adapt to the pro game.

Whether it’s Cleveland and Ingram, or perhaps Risner and Ing, one thing is sure, the two starting guards on this team will have to improve if this team wants to compete with the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and the 49ers in January. Cousins, while not a complete statue of a quarterback, doesn’t offer the mobility of a Daniel Jones, Jalen Hurts, or Lamar Jackson to escape pressure. He’s aging, and the hits caught up to him last season, so limiting the interior pressure is a plus for the entire operation.

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