There was a lot of controversy throughout the week leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ 34-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers. It was centered (no pun intended) around Mason Cole and Garrett Bradbury. Cole admirably filled Bradbury in the COVID stash. It was only natural that the Vikings beat would require Cole to stay in the lineup, given Bradbury’s unfavorable reputation.
After a week shrouded in secrecy, Cole trotted against Green Bay with Bradbury active and on the bench. Coaches would have you believe this was a temporary measure as Bradbury continues to recover from respiratory illness. But what if it is not? If Cole is truly the center of the Vikings now, some things about the offense will change. Over the course of the week, we’ll find out if Bradbury is picking up first team rehearsals or if Cole has conquered the starting position. But for now, let’s take a look at what happens to the offense with Cole in the lineup.
The back steps
If asked why Bradbury ended up on the bench, most people would point out his general lack of grounding. Sadly, Cole doesn’t have a good foothold either. This leads to ugly losses. Bradbury’s lowlight coil is no better. But that’s far from the most important impact a center can have on a room. These returning reps need a little more nuance. Giving ground in the pocket is never secretly a good thing, but there are varying degrees of failure that we probably should address.
In our sample so far, it doesn’t appear that playing Cole reduces the number of center reps. This may be more of a problem for you than I do, so to break the tie we have to look elsewhere in Cole’s game.
Center play isn’t just about the pass protection anchor. The most important duty of a center is to snap the ball. This may sound simple and routine, but not to Cole, who has had a problem with this for years:
This issue surfaced last week against the Los Angeles Chargers, disrupting the timing of what could have been a big game:
Cousins’ recoil is slowed down as he has to pick up the snap off the ground. This puts him behind schedule to reach the top of his dropback, so there isn’t as much space between him and the incoming pressure, which is Cole’s as well. Thank Cousins for finding completion despite all of this. Against Green Bay, Cousins almost couldn’t get a low and away snap. These small disruptions in the schedule can lead to much bigger problems down the road.
The next most important task of a center is to call protections. It’s hard work for only 32 people around the world. In the last three games, the Vikings have given way too many rushers released in the middle. Some unlocked rushers are inevitable, and infractions might even want them. After all, an outboard blitz means an unoccupied apartment, and the Vikings love to send Dalvin Cook into space. One of Minnesota’s best offensive games against Green Bay came with unblocked pressure.
However, there have been too many botched protections in Cole’s three games as a starter. We can’t know for sure who is at fault without being in the offensive line boardroom, but the center holds primary responsibility. If Cole gave an order and one of the other linemen didn’t hear him, we might pass the blame accordingly. Until we learn that, however, the default state is to blame the center (and, to some extent, Cousins could have vetoed any of them).
The racing game
Finally, the Vikings have greatly changed their racing game over the past few weeks. Maybe it’s thanks to Bradbury’s absence, or maybe it’s a general adjustment to help a struggling attack, but it’s worth pointing out. Garrett Bradbury’s reputation, both in college and among the pros, stems from his blocking of reach. Reach blocks are blocks that require an offensive lineman to cross a defensive lineman’s face, turn their hips the other way, and seal it. They are notoriously tough and there is perhaps no one better in the league than Bradbury.
Range blocks are a staple of area blocking, which the Vikings have been using for several years now. But with Cole at the center, they used a lot more concepts of power and “duo.” Without going too far, the main difference is the increased use of more direct top-down blocks. Every design is different, but it left one less blocker on second tier on several occasions. Most of the races that reach the second level are already successful, but this limits their explosiveness.
A power-based racing game can’t be worse; it’s just different. Against Green Bay, the Vikings started 15th in their series with points. Fourteen of them turned into a first try or a first touchdown. They were more consistent than explosive. Whether that consistency can continue – and whether it’s worth ditching in other categories of offensive online play – remains to be seen. There are just as many chances that the racing game will fail as more and more teams have tape over the new approach.
Cole is probably not the answer if the idea behind the change centers is to limit the amount of ground ceded in pass protection. For me, that’s not the point anyway. Maybe the shift to a gap-based precipitation system has some momentum. But is it worth a cut in the two most important jobs in a center (hooking and take-off protection)? Maybe you could make a statistical point anyway, but not without adding the context of Mike Zimmer’s simultaneous assault directive. Either way, we might get more samples if the Vikings choose to stick with Cole. Or, they were telling the truth from the start, and Bradbury will come back against San Francisco. Time will tell us.