MINNEAPOLIS — The frequently heavy pressure allowed by Minnesota’s offensive line last season prompted, naturally, just as much heat on the group from outside of the team.
Any preseason assessment of these Vikings essentially boiled down to one burning question: Can the line hold up?
The answer from the opener was a resounding yes.
“They kept me clean all night long, and they gave me plenty of time to sit back there and evaluate things and find the open receiver,” said quarterback Sam Bradford, who posted a career-best passer rating (143.0) while completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover.
But wait. There’s more.
Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries in his NFL debut , as the Vikings sprinted past, then wore down the New Orleans Saints during a 29-19 victory.
For a team that ranked last in the league in rushing in 2016 with just 3.2 yards per attempt and 75.3 yards per game, Cook’s productivity down the stretch with the Vikings draining the clock behind a comfortable lead was an encouraging development.
“They answered the bell coming out of the gate,” Cook said. “Whatever the question was, I think those guys did a very good job. I know those guys because I practice with them every day, and I know what they’re capable of doing. They went out and showed the world what they’re capable of doing.”
After using 12 different players among the five spots last season and employed eight unique starting combinations in 16 games, the Vikings splurged in free agency on two new tackles, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. They drafted center Pat Elflein in the third round.
The final piece of the renovation came on regular-season roster cut-down day with the jettisoning of left guard Alex Boone, their big purchase from the year before. That meant a starting spot for Nick Easton, with right guard Joe Berger the only holdover in the lineup.
The first-team offense sputtered through three preseason appearances, producing a total of three points in 12 possessions and further increasing concern from fans and skepticism from analysts about the five-man line. That’s the fallacy of evaluating exhibition games, though. They’re never complete pictures.
“In the building, we feel great about those guys up front,” Bradford said. “We’ve seen it during OTAs. We’ve seen it during training camp. I know we didn’t play great as an offense during the preseason games. We’ve seen what we’re capable of doing.”
With a rookie center in Elflein, there will be a learning curve at the most mentally challenging position on the line, but the Vikings have the benefit of both guards also being natural centers who can help with pre-snap calls.
Bradford and the rest of the team raved throughout training camp about Elflein’s grasp of the game, too.
“I couldn’t ask for better teammates to go out there and do this with,” Elflein said after his first NFL game. He added: “There’s obviously some things we need to get better at, but as a whole I think it was a pretty decent start so we’ll just build on that.”
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was widely credited with a shrewd game plan that helped Bradford find favorable matchups for wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen as he gradually opened up the attack with some laser-like long tosses down the field.
That softened up the Saints for Cook to finish them off down the stretch. The success on Monday night could also be traced back to Shurmur’s offseason implementation of a zone-based, side-to-side blocking scheme that fits better with Cook’s style. Boone didn’t fit as well as the other more mobile interior blockers did.
“Everybody was feeding off of each other’s energy,” Diggs said, adding: “Playing as a collective unit, we are a powerful force.”