EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Midway through the third quarter in Charlotte last Sunday, Jeremiah Sirles had to take what he was doing at left guard and throw it out the window.
An injury to Riley Reiff forced the Minnesota Vikings offensive line to make several adjustments in the middle of a drive. Rashod Hill moved from right tackle, where he had started the last five games, to left tackle in place of Reiff, while Sirles took over Hill’s spot and rookie Danny Isidora came off the bench to fill in at left guard.
Shifting from guard on one side of the line to tackle on the opposite side is a drastic change, one that many players would struggle in adjusting to on the fly.
“Yeah, that’s pretty tough,” Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “Moving from New York to L.A., I guess. Well, it’d be more like Detroit to L.A., inside to outside.”
But not every team has someone as flexible as Sirles, who is well-versed in all four guard and tackle positions. The Vikings utility lineman spent the better part of three weeks filling in at left guard after Nick Easton injured his calf in Chicago. When it came to moving outside against the Panthers, Sirles leaned on his experience to combat the differences in speed.
“Guys are there quickly [at guard] but they’re not the faster guys, to whereas you move out to tackle, the guys are more spaced but they’re faster,” Sirles said. “You’re not touching a guy from a half a second or a full second at tackle, to whereas at guard you’re touching a guy instantly or right away because he’s right there in your grill.”
December is a month defined by attrition in the NFL. Very few players are at full health entering the 15th week of the season, as rosters are often depleted by injuries. In addition to losing Reiff, the Vikings have been without right tackle Mike Remmers since he went down in Week 8, and they didn’t have rookie center Pat Elflein (shoulder) at Carolina.
The Vikings were dealt an unfortunate set of circumstances recently, but at this point last year, Minnesota had already lost four offensive tackles for the season. Sirles ended up starting 10 games at right tackle, while Hill was signed off the practice squad after Jake Long was moved to injured reserve in November 2016. In Week 17, Hill came in for an injured T.J. Clemmings against Chicago and did not allow a pressure or surrender a sack.
After a disastrous year filled with injuries that hit the offensive line hard, the Vikings' top priority last offseason was to tap into free agency to fix their issues at both tackle spots. That’s where they landed Reiff and Remmers. Minnesota then looked to a new wave of talent to remedy its other concerns. Out of the draft, the Vikings landed Elflein and Isidora -- a starter and solid option off the bench.
Quality depth is of extreme importance to Mike Zimmer. While the Vikings coach expressed optimism regarding the return of Remmers and Elflein against the Bengals, it appears more likely that Reiff could miss Sunday’s game after not practicing on Wednesday and Thursday.
Hill spent the week preparing for left tackle, a position he hasn’t started at since his college days at Southern Mississippi. Having the time to get back in a rhythm with his hand and foot placement, while learning a different set of plays, is obviously easier to master over several days instead of in the middle of a game.
“He’s been practicing there all the time anyways,” Zimmer said. “He was on a good rusher last week. Those guys were good rushers. Sometimes you have those games.”
The Vikings had a lot more of those games last year, when injuries took away their pass protectors. With Hill, the more times he’s been relied on out of necessity, the better he’s gotten -- a crucial benefit for Minnesota in keeping its offensive line intact down the stretch.
“I think he’s improved each game,” Shurmur said. “We knew he was a good player, but the time that he spent playing is going to serve him well as he goes through his career. He’s done a really good job for us. He’s an outstanding pass protector; he’s getting better in the run game. I just feel like each week and with each exposure, he gets better and better.”