Monday, November 13, 2017

Vikings' first-half MVP? Look no further than tackle Riley Reiff

Keep this on the down-low: Riley Reiff has not allowed a sack this season

By Mark Craig
NOVEMBER 11, 2017

My pick for Vikings MVP through eight games?

Riley Reiff.

I went to the sturdy left tackle on Wednesday to give him this bit of life-changing news. He looked at me, sort of smiled and proclaimed, “Sorry, I only talk after games.”

Thursday, the big fella of few words responded through a team official, saying, “The thing that’s great about this team is nobody cares about individual awards. We’re only halfway through the season. We haven’t done anything yet.”

He may be quiet off the field, but Reiff’s play on the field is, to me, the keystone at the very foundation — offensive line — upon which this team sits heading into Sunday’s Week 10 game at Washington.

“You easily could make an argument for Riley being the MVP,” backup guard Jeremiah Sirles said.

And what better week to do so?

The 2016 Vikings also spent Week 10 at Washington. By that time, they were down to Jake Long as their third starting left tackle, and Sam Bradford had the pile of sacks to prove it.

Three plays from the end of that game, Long tore his Achilles’ tendon. Sirles rushed onto the field as the team’s fourth left tackle in nine games.

It was fourth-and-17 from the Washington 28. Eleven seconds remained. The Vikings trailed 26-20.

“It was not a good situation,” Sirles said. “One play, one sack. It still haunts my dreams.”

The Vikings fell to 5-4 after starting 5-0. By the end of their 3-8 free fall, five people had lined up at left tackle in what became a swinging gate to Bradford’s blind side.

“Left tackle is a different animal,” Sirles said. “That’s why it’s so cool to see how well Riley is playing.”

Reiff has started every game, played all but one quarter, allowing zero sacks. He’s the leader of a rebuilt line that has allowed the passing game to rank 14th with backup quarterback Case Keenum playing all but six quarters, and the running game to stay in the top 10 without Dalvin Cook.

Yes, this remains a defensively oriented team with superstars on that side of the ball. But we found out late last year that its dominance fades dramatically without a functional offense to keep it fresh.

With the Vikings sitting atop the NFC North at 6-2, people spent the bye week bickering about who is most deserving of midseason MVP.

Never mind that it’s a team game. It’s sports in 2017 and we must argue while gouging each other’s eyes out!

Right, Latavius Murray?

“Well,” he said, “I think everyone in a sense has contributed to where we’re at.”

Too logical. Too calm. You’d make a terrible fan.

I’ve seen several names thrown about. All deserving. Shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes. Sacks leader Everson Griffen. Re-energized Anthony Barr. Tackling machine Eric Kendricks. Do-everything Harrison Smith. Adam Thielen because he’s surprisingly good and someone on offense has to be mentioned, right?

But there are five names I haven’t seen anywhere. They play offensive line. Four of them — Reiff, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger and Mike Remmers — have started every game for a team that burned through 12 linemen last season.

“That’s par for the course,” Sirles said. “But we don’t need the recognition. We see what we’re doing.”

Heading to Washington a year ago, the Vikings were averaging 2.7 yards per carry. This year, the average is 4.0. Last year, they had thrown 276 passes and been sacked 21 times. This year, they’ve thrown 277 passes and been sacked 10 times.

Asked if that kind of protection allows him to let more pass plays develop, Keenum laughed and said, “Yeah, I mean when you’re getting the crap knocked out of you, you tend to try and get the ball out sooner.”

Four of the five linemen who started last year’s game at Washington aren’t even on the roster this year. And the most criticized of those four, tackle T.J. Clemmings, now plays for Washington. Or tries to.

As Washington’s third-stringer, he started his second game last Sunday. He gave up three sacks.

Three more reasons to make Reiff the midseason MVP.

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