There was a lot of controversy during the week leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ 34-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers. It centered (no pun) around Mason Cole and Garrett Bradbury. Cole filled in admirably with Bradbury on the COVID reserve. It was only natural for the Vikings beat to ask if Cole would possibly stay in line given Bradbury’s unfavorable reputation.
After a week shrouded in secrecy, Cole trotted out toward Green Bay with Bradbury active and on the bench. Coaches will have you believe this was a temporary measure as Bradbury continues to recover from a respiratory illness. But what if it is not? If Cole really is the Vikings’ center now, some things about the attack will change. Over the course of the week, we’ll find out if Bradbury is repeating first – team training representatives, or if Cole has conquered the starting job. But for now, let’s look at what the attack will be with Cole in the lineup.
If asked why Bradbury was benched, most would point to his general lack of anchor. Unfortunately, Cole does not have a good anchor either. It leads to some ugly losses. Bradbury’s lowlight coil is no better. But this is far from the most significant influence a center can have on a play. These walk-back reps need a little more nuance. Giving up the pocket is never a secret a good thing, but there are varying degrees of failure we probably need to find out.
In our trial so far, it does not appear that playing Cole reduces the number of center walk-back reps. You may have more problems with it than I have, so to break the tie, we’ll have to look elsewhere in Cole’s game.
There is more to center play than passport protection anchors. The most important duty a center has is to snatch the ball. It may seem simple and routine, but not for Cole, who has had a problem with this for years:
That problem raised its head last week against the Los Angeles Chargers and disrupted the timing of what could have been a big game:
Cousins’ dropback is slowed as he has to scoop the snap out of the ground. This means he is late to hit the top of his dropback, so there is not so much room between him and the incoming pressure that is also Coles. Credit Cousins for finding a completion despite all this. Against Green Bay, Cousins could barely capture a snap low and outward. These small interruptions in timing can lead to much bigger problems along the way.
The second most important task a center has is to call for protection. This is a difficult job reserved for only 32 people in the world. In the last three games, the Vikings have allowed way too many unblocked rushers in the middle. Some unblocked rushers are inevitable, and offenses might even have them. After all, a flash off the edge means an uninhabited apartment, and the Vikings love to get Dalvin Cook in space. One of the best offensive games Minnesota had against Green Bay came with unblocked pressure.
However, there have been too many unprotected protections in Cole’s three starts. We can not know for sure who is to blame without being in the offensive meeting room, but the center has the primary responsibility. If Cole gave an order and one of the other linemen did not hear it, we could move the blame accordingly. Until we learn this, however, the default state is to blame the center (and to some extent, Cousins could have vetoed any of these).
The running game
Finally, the Vikings have changed their running game a lot in the last few weeks. Maybe this is thanks to Bradbury’s absence, or maybe it’s a general adjustment to help a struggling offense, but it’s worth pointing out. Garrett Bradbury’s reputation, both at the university and the professionals, stems from his blocking of reach. Reach blocks are blocks that require an offensive lineman to cross the face of a defensive lineman, turn his hips back the other way, and shut him off. They are notoriously tough and there may not be anyone better in the league than Bradbury.
Range blocks are a fixed component of zone blocking that the Vikings have been using for several years now. But with Cole at the center, they have used much more power concepts and “duo”. Without getting too deep, the main difference is the greater use of more direct downward blocks. Each design is different, but this has left one blocking fewer on the second level on many occasions. Most races that reach the second level are already successful, but this limits their explosiveness.
A power-based running game might not be worse; it’s just different. Against Green Bay, the Vikings started 15 of their series with races. Fourteen of them converted to a first down or touchdown. They have been more consistent than explosive. Whether that consistency can continue – and whether it is worth a drop-off in other categories of offensive line play – is still unknown. There is an equally good chance that the running game will fall, as several teams have ties to the new-fashioned approach.
Cole is probably not the answer if the idea behind switching centers is to limit the amount of land given in passport protection. For me, that is not the goal anyway. Maybe switching to a gap-based rushing system has some momentum. But is it worth falling into the two most important jobs a center has (snapping and call protection)? Perhaps you could make a statistical argument in both ways, but not without adding the context of Mike Zimmer’s contemporary directive on aggression. In any case, we might get more of a try if the Vikings choose to stick with Cole. Or else they told the truth all the time, and Bradbury returns to San Francisco. Time will tell.