Friday, September 15, 2017

What Went Right: Riley Reiff Turns Heads in Vikings Debut

By Austin Belisle

September 14, 2017

Duct tape may prove a quick fix for leaky pipes, but as every DIY repairman knows, a patchwork job only lasts so long. In the NFL, where leaks in the offensive line can flood a team’s Super Bowl aspirations, duct tape is the least desirable option in a general manager’s toolbox.

Jake Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Matt Kalil, and T.J. Clemmings were just that — temporary measures in the season-long effort to protect Sam Bradford‘s blindside. The Minnesota Vikings survived the year, but not without catastrophe along the way. General manager Rick Spielman recognized he’d need more than a roll of tape to fix the critical infrastructure; he’d need to replace the pipes completely.

Riley Reiff, signed to a five-year, $58.75 million deal this offseason, was the first in a series of Spielman’s offseason repairs. He followed the highlight move by acquiring right tackle Mike Remmers in free agency, drafting Pat Elflein as the franchise’s long-term center, and releasing veteran guard Alex Boone just a week before the regular season.

The result? An overhauled offensive line with new starters at every position. Doubts about the unit’s cohesiveness and preparedness mounted as Week 1 approached, and none louder than those surrounding Reiff. He’d missed nearly all of the preseason with a back injury, one that thrust swing tackle Rashod Hill into a prominent role during the exhibition slate.

Even before the injury occurred — on the first day of padded practices, no less — there were rumblings among the purple and gold faithful that Reiff would make a better right tackle than Remmers. The logic, at least on paper, was coherent; Reiff had started 14 games at right tackle for the Detroit Lions in 2016, posting better Pro Football Focus (PFF) numbers than Remmers in the same span.

Shifting Reiff to the right and plugging Hill in as the other bookend wasn’t necessarily crazy; Hill had, in a limited sample, proven up to the task of protecting Bradford’s back shoulder. But the bulk of Reiff’s work as a professional has come at left tackle, where he’s been an above-average starter since 2012. As the head of a relatively successful front office, Spielman was never going to entertain such ideas.

Sure enough, Reiff returned to the field for the team’s third preseason game, putting together a quiet, yet solid performance on the left side in a quarter of play. Not once did the broadcast booth mention Reiff’s name, which is always a win for tackles; the less you’re mentioned, the fewer mistakes you’re likely making to the naked eye. And last season, fans heard far too much “Clemmings” and “Sirles” blasting from their television speakers.

Fast-forward to Monday night, when Reiff debuted as Spielman’s signature free agent acquisition. Days before Minnesota’s Week 1 matchup, head coach Mike Zimmer made Reiff one of six team captains, signaling his value in the Vikings’ 2017 run for a Super Bowl. Fans may have worried about Reiff’s early prospects, but the front office and coaching staff clearly recognized the upgrade they’d found, at a price, in their new left tackle.

After the 29-19 victory over the Saints, it was abundantly clear that no group had a bigger impact on the game than the offensive line; their cohesive play gave Bradford ample time in the pocket and paved the way for Dalvin Cook‘s record-setting performance. Of the five starters, none were more impressive than Reiff, who reminded an oft-burned fanbase of the luxury that is a trustworthy blindside blocker.

What Went Right

Pass Protection

One game won’t justify Reiff’s hefty price tag, but the instant gratification could be a sweet sample of what’s to come. PFF charted all of Reiff’s snaps, finding he had, by the website’s measure, a perfect evening in pass protection. According to Nathan Jahnke, Reiff set up in pass protection 35 times, allowing zero sacks, hits, or hurries on Bradford in the pocket.

The performance makes Reiff one of nine tackles — both left and right — who’s yet to allow a QB pressure. He joins Tyron Smith and Andrew Whitworth on the list, putting himself in the company of an exceptional sampling of NFL tackles.
The two aforementioned names should be there after years of elite play, while Reiff’s mention is more anomaly than expectation; still, to see any Vikings tackle mentioned in the same breath is an encouraging step forward.

Handling Speed and Power

Whether protecting Bradford in a five- or three-step drop, Reiff showed no signs of lingering pain from his back injury. He moved with the mobility and fluidity from his time in Detroit, countering the speed and power of New Orleans’ pass rushers with quick feet and a balanced base.

In the below example, he kicked to the appropriate depth, engaging with the blitzing safety at the apex of Bradford’s drop. Rather than allow Vaccaro to initiate contact, Reiff recognized his intent and attacked the outside shoulder. Like any tackle with experience, Reiff turned Vaccaro’s speed and momentum into an advantage, using his right hand as a club to force the rush too far upfield.

When tested with power, Reiff also showed an ability to anchor down and stop the bull rush in its tracks. The defensive end in the below situation attempted a speed-to-power move; a pass rush technique to throw a tackle off balance and collapse the pocket. Reiff met the contact with square shoulders and proper weight distribution, lowering his hips and taking short, choppy steps to nullify the rusher’s momentum.

What stands out in Reiff’s limited Vikings resumé is “easy” power; making the embarrassment of professional-level athletes look more fluid than it should. When fully healthy and put in a system that emphasizes his strengths — especially those in the running game — Reiff has a chance to elevate himself into a higher class of left tackles.

Run Blocking

With Cook in the backfield, Minnesota’s offensive line has not only seen a shift in personnel, but in scheme and philosophy. Cook starred in an offense at Florida State catered to his abilities as a home-run-hitting tailback; one that allowed him to read an offensive line’s blocks, make one cut, and sprint for the end zone.

To run a scheme heavy on inside and outside zone concepts, a team must have linemen who can separate from the line of scrimmage and block in space. In Reiff, the Vikings have a left tackle who can do all of these things and genuinely seems to enjoy looking for work while running downfield.

In the example below, Cook took the shotgun handoff from Bradford as the offensive line set up the outside zone. Elflein and Reiff, arguably Minnesota’s two most capable linemen, opened their hips and ran to the sideline, positioning themselves as Cook’s pseudo lead blockers.

Reiff’s specific block isn’t the catalyst on the play — Rudolph lost his battle on the edge — but demonstrates his athleticism in space. He correctly identified Vaccaro’s aiming point, throwing a chop block at the proper angle to remove the safety as New Orleans’ alley defender. If Rudolph had created any push at the point of attack, Cook may have been able to spring loose for more than a four-yard gain.

Capable in space, Reiff’s power also pays dividends on double-team and down blocks. Below, he and the offensive line executed zone blocks, with each player blocking the defender immediately to their right. Given the Saints’ defensive alignment, Reiff was responsible for double-teaming the defensive tackle (3-technique) with Nick Easton to the second level.

Upon first contact, Easton generated little push, but Reiff’s help catapulted the tackle to linebacker depth. Without separating from the block, Reiff nearly drove the scraping linebacker out of the play completely. While he should have disengaged and worked to cut off No. 53’s path to the gap, it’s clear Reiff brings needed explosiveness at the point of attack.

Side note: Props to David Morgan for the seal block on No. 48.

Following Reiff’s first game in Minnesota purple, Zimmer called his left tackle a “fighter,” lauding his efforts as a pass protector and road-grading blocker. “I thought he played well. He’s a fighter,” Zimmer said, per “I thought he did a good job in the run game and the pass game.”

All measures — analytics, statistics, and film work —show Reiff was the best left tackle on the field Monday night.
He’s arguably the best left tackle the Vikings have seen since Kalil’s rookie year in 2012, and could be considered the ultimate solution to Minnesota’s leaky offensive line if this trend of consistent, needed play continues.

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