Fans have labeled the Vikings’ 2017 offensive line as good. Some go so far as to call them great. Granted, compared to last year’s unit, every one of the linemen is Anthony Munoz. But the Vikings line has been, at best, fine. And for the past few weeks, they have been mediocre-to-bad in pass protection. No one on the line has signaled this decline than left tackle Riley Reiff.
Over the first half of the season, Reiff looked like Rick Spielman’s greatest offseason acquisition. He brought a steadiness to the left tackle position that Viking fans had not seen since Matt Kalil‘s Pro Bowl rookie season. But from weeks 14 to 17, Reiff’s pass protection took a bit of a dip. He allowed pressure at a higher rate, frequently getting pushed into Case Keenum‘s lap. As a result, Keenum took to scrambling more often and his throwing accuracy decreased accordingly.
For some metric context to Reiff’s slip in play, Pro Football Focus currently has him rated as the 63rd-best tackle in the league with an overall grade of 49.4. A few games ago, his grade was around 73, which would place him about 30th. STATS currently ranks him 17th among left tackles as a pass blocker, whereas after week 13 he ranked ninth. Of course, there is a level of subjectivity to those ratings. But the fact remains that his metrics have tumbled across multiple platforms.
There are some extenuating circumstances to Reiff’s struggles. In particular, he has been nursing his ankle for several weeks and his partner on that side of the line, Nick Easton shuffled in and out of the left guard slot before going down for the season. But truth be told, much of his struggles are due to technique. And with a matchup against Cameron Jordan looming, Reiff is going to receive a greater spotlight.
From studying his film, it appears that Reiff is susceptible to the bull rush. He ends up going backwards more than a left tackle should. Much of this can be attributed to his pass set. He has a habit of allowing the defender to get into his body, rather than using his hands, as well as keeping his weight too far forward.
Reiff is working against Sam Acho here, who while a decent enough pass rusher, is hardly elite. But compare Reiff’s set with Rashod Hill‘s on the other side. Hill has his weight back, his hands up, ready for a variety of pass rush moves. Reiff, on the other hand, has his hands down and is leaning forward.
Now Reiff has let Acho into his body and has his shoulders out in front of his feet. Because his weight is forward, as Acho bull rushes, Reiff lacks the leverage to counter and Acho ends up pushing him into Keenum’s lap. Again, compare with Hill. His shoulders are back, he has separation and Lamarr Houston ends up nowhere near the quarterback.
This was not a particularly good game for Reiff. If we include plays wiped by penalties and exclude screen passes, Reiff had 35 pass blocking snaps. Of those 35, he “won” the battle on 27 of them, 77.1 percent. That number on its own is acceptable. But he also allowed four pressures on those 35 snaps, which is 11.4 percent. For reference, good tackles allow pressure on six percent or less. Bad tackles are at eight or higher. Given that this was the last game before the postseason and against Bears edge rushers who are only slightly above average, that 11.4 percent is concerning. The week before at Green Bay was slightly better; Reiff did not allow a pressure but won only 73.1 percent of pass blocking battles.
These habits of leaning forward and not using hands set Reiff up for all sorts of pitfalls. A rusher can lead with a bullrush and transition to a speed move. Since he has his weight over his feet, he would not be in position to recover. Jordan is a different beast than Sam Acho. He has speed and power that few defensive ends can match. Reiff handled him well in week one, but 18 weeks later, he has a banged-up ankle to worry about and an array of bad habits that are now on tape.
The Vikings has only lost one game since week four: Week 14 in Carolina. In that game, the Panthers sacked Keenum six times and hit him three others. While they were still in position to win, Keenum threw two interceptions and averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt. The Saints do not have a host of pass-rushers as lethal as Carolina, but they do have the All-Pro in Jordan. Reiff has to re-find that steadiness that helped make the Vikings passing game so lethal for 12 weeks.
The Vikings have the roster to win if he continues to struggle. But you can bet the Saints are looking at this matchup as a key to pulling off the road upset.
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