|Marilyn Indahl/Icon SMI|
|Having Phil Loadholt at right tackle should give Minnesota's offense more options.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MANKATO, Minn. -- The formation seemed customary for the Minnesota Vikings, circa 2008. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser was lined up alongside the right tackle. Next to Kleinsasser was another tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe. Maximum protection, you might say, for a right-side run behind a subpar tackle.
Quarterback Sage Rosenfels, however, faked a handoff and rolled right for a bootleg pass. He found Kleinsasser for a first-down completion in the flat. Sounds simple, but let it be known: A seemingly innocuous 5-yard pass spoke volumes about a behind-the-scenes adjustment the Vikings are hoping to make to their offense this season.
The right tackle in question was not Ryan Cook, a weak performer over the past two seasons. Instead, it was massive rookie Phil Loadholt -- who didn't so much as dominate the play as he merely fulfilled the role of a trusted right tackle who doesn't always need help from the tight end. Instead of staying put to help Loadholt, Kleinsasser was free to provide another receiving option while the defense focused on Shiancoe.
The development might not rise to the excitement level of Percy Harvin's potential impact. But it's no less important for a team that was among the NFL's most left-handed running teams last season, one that often seemed schematically strapped by the need to protect Cook or minimize his impact. Loadholt is a rookie with some rough edges, but his 6-foot-8, 343-pound frame should compensate for some inexperience and give the Vikings some nuanced flexibility to expand their offense this season.
"He has held his own in there against our [first-team] defense," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "That is a good measuring stick."
Take a look at the chart to your right. Last season, the Vikings ran around left end more than all but one NFL team. They ranked No. 19 in runs around right end, and overall they directed only 30 percent of their running plays to the right of center. That's a stark predictability influenced by two factors: the presence of All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson on the left side and Cook's struggles on the right.
As long as Hutchinson remains in the lineup, it's unlikely the Vikings will reverse those numbers in 2009. But simply bringing them closer to even will be a new obstacle for opposing defenses that more often than not could gear up for a run to the left side.
Pre-snap formations could also be impacted. The Vikings might not feel as obligated to park Kleinsasser next to the right tackle. They could use a more skilled receiver in that space, perhaps Shiancoe or Garrett Mills, or be able to limit their use of the two-tight end look altogether.
Of course, this all presupposes that Loadholt can lock down the position in a way that Cook never could. After spending four days watching the Vikings practice, it seemed clear to me that Loadholt is well on his way. You don't have to look far to see the primary reason. I like how coach Brad Childress distilled it when I asked him Monday.
Childress noted that "mass kicks [something that rhymes with mass]" on most occasions.
"You don't see a lot of tiny guys running around him," Childress added. "Guys can kind of get enveloped in him."
Based on a review of all 32 NFL rosters, Loadholt is one of seven presumptive starting tackles who stand 6-foot-8 or higher. (Teammate Bryant McKinnie is another, giving the Vikings the biggest pair of tackles in the game.) That size -- and the reach that goes with the accompanying long arms -- is a rare advantage, according to Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen.
"It takes a toll on you," Allen said. "When you play a guy that big, you better bring your lunch pail. They don't even have to be the toughest human being. It's just a lot of weight on you, play in and play out. Plus, they can cover a lot of ground. Even if you get away from him, the recovery skills are so good because they can drop-step and cover so much ground. And then quarterbacks can hide behind them. Big guys like that are susceptible to some things, but you have to have a different game plan because all of your space is eliminated by their range."
To be clear, Loadholt has his share of fundamental details to work on. McKinnie has tutored him on bending at his knees, rather than his waist, to increase leverage during run blocking. But the player who has spent the most time working against him during camp, left end Ray Edwards, has already seen enough.
"He's going to be a good football player once he learns all those fundamentals," Edwards said. "Once he gets his hands on you, you're not getting away from him. It's just too much weight to move. If you can't get him off of you somehow, it's going to be a long day."
It will be interesting to see how the Vikings fare with such a huge pair of bookend tackles. Allen pointed out that big tackles are particularly susceptible to bull rushes if you can get underneath them; pushing a 6-8 tackle into the quarterback is almost as good as a sack. In this division, you wonder if pass-rushers like Chicago's Adewale Ogunleye and Green Bay's Aaron Kampman will employ some veteran wiles against him.
"Right now," Loadholt said, "I'm trying to get as many reps as I can. The more reps I can get, the better chance I'll have against those guys."
The Vikings are counting on it.