The Cleveland Browns had seven fewer sacks on Sunday than in their previous game, but that hardly mattered. They still harassed Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins all afternoon.
After getting nine sacks in Week 3 against Chicago, the Browns had two in their 14-7 victory over Minnesota at U.S. Bank Stadium. But they pressured Cousins 22 times, according to Pro Football Focus, and that was the difference in the game.
The Vikings’ offensive line was much maligned entering the season but held up rather well in the first three games. That changed on Sunday.
“We expect to put a better product out there,” tackle Brian O’Neill said Monday.
O’Neill signed a five-year, $92.6 million contract extension before the season, making him the second-highest paid right tackle in the NFL. But he didn’t look the part against the Browns, allowing four pressures.
And yet, that was nothing compared to Rashod Hill, who makes $2.24 million and is one of the lowest-paid starting left tackles in the NFL. Going against Cleveland star defensive end Myles Garrett, Hill gave up 10 pressures.
Among the other three starters on the line, guard Oli Udoh allowed eight pressures, guard Ezra Cleveland three and center Garrett Bradbury two. The numbers add up to more than 22 because multiple players were considered to have allowed pressures on some plays.
“Just not enough execution across the board,” O’Neill said. “We’ve just got to execute better and play better.”
The Vikings looked good when they took the opening kickoff and went 75 yards for a 7-0 lead on Cousins’ 12-yard touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson. Cousins completed 6 of 6 passes for 59 yards on that drive.
But everything changed after that as the Vikings fell to 1-3. Cousins completed just 14 of 32 passes the rest of the game to finish 20 of 38 for 203 yards and his first interception of the season.
“They had a good pass rush,” Cousins said after the game. “It was understood going into the game, and they did a good job throughout the game.”
It wasn’t just in the passing game that the offensive line struggled. The Vikings ran for just 65 yards after they averagied 128 in the first three games. So, it was no surprise that O’Neill also touched upon the run game when discussing the litany of things the line must do better heading into Sunday’s game against Detroit (0-4) at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Execute the plays that were called better,” he said. “Finish blocks better. Make more holes in the run game. Protect Kirk. All the responsibilities of being an offensive lineman in this offense, to be honest.”
It didn’t help the run game that Dalvin Cook wasn’t at full strength in his return after missing one game due to a sprained right ankle. He had nine carries for just 34 yards, and was in and out of the lineup in the second half due to the ankle. Nevertheless, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer shrugged off Cook’s injury on Monday, saying, “He said he feels good today.”
With Cook struggling, the Vikings didn’t get much support from backup running back Alexander Mattison, who tied his career high with 112 yards rushing when Cook sat out the 30-17 win on Sept. 26 over Seattle. Against the Browns, Mattison had 10 carries for 20 yards.
With the running game ineffective and the Vikings getting into multiple third-and-long situations, the Browns knew that pass plays were coming.
“It was just guys pressuring, getting pressure up the middle,” Zimmer said. “Part of that was we didn’t get the running game going, so those guys were teeing off and just going.”
It remains to be seen what the Vikings will do with the offensive line moving forward. At least the Lions, who entered Monday ranked No. 29 in the NFL in scoring defense, aren’t expected to provide a daunting challenge.
At some point, though, the Vikings might look to replace Hill at left tackle with rookie Christian Darrisaw, who made his NFL debut Sunday on special teams after missing the first three games with a groin injury. Darrisaw, who is being brought along slowly, got in for one snap on Greg Joseph’s extra point following Minnesota’s only touchdown.
In the meantime, O’Neill insisted that Vikings offensive linemen aren’t hanging their heads.
“I think the morale is fine,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of players in our group. I think guys fully understand what we’re capable of. … I’ve got a lot of respect for (the Browns) but we’re going to see more talented fronts this year, and we’re going to rise to the occasion and do a better job.”