Mailbag: Can Vikings offensive line improve? What about Jefferson’s second half?

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Thank you for submitting questions for this Vikings mailbag. You can send questions to @Andrew_Krammer on X (formerly Twitter) or Listen for answers to more of your questions on the mailbag episode of the "Access Vikings" podcast, embedded at the end of this article. Let's get to it.

Q: Is it too much to expect Ed Ingram to be better right now? He played all last season, wasn't hurt and didn't miss any camp time. Preseason he was bad. Then game one he rates terribly and causes one (two with Winfield miss?) turnovers. — @jvangelder

AK: Nobody has publicly put the Antoine Winfield Jr. sack-fumble on right guard Ed Ingram, but Tampa's pre-snap look clearly duped the Vikings' protection plan. Winfield disguised his intentions and made it look like he was dropping into coverage before blitzing.

This could be on center Austin Schlottmann, who was replacing the injured Garrett Bradbury. Minnesota's protection schemes aren't a simple "slide left" or "slide right," rather a "sort side" or a "man side," as offensive coordinator Wes Phillips explained during training camp. When four linemen slide left, they're sorting out who to block based on the pre-snap identification of rushers. Fullback C.J. Ham fills in the middle, and RBs are generally coached to pick up the blitzer closest to center/quarterback.

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In the clip below, watch how the Bucs show five rushers to the "sort" or left side. Tampa Bay duped the Vikings because they drop the left tackle's edge rusher into coverage and blitz Winfield from the right side. The Vikings think they're sorting through the five rushers on the left, when they end up moving five blockers to pick up four rushers.

With all that said, the Vikings need Ingram and Schlottmann to be better on Thursday night in Philadelphia. On the opening third down, Ingram appeared to blow a twist pickup that surrendered immediate pressure. He had the "freak accident," as he said, of punching the ball out of Cousins' hands. Some of Ingram's problems appear to be vision and communication, which in theory should be fixable. But those issues compound when facing a blitz-heavy team like the Buccaneers (and when on the road in a loud environment).

Q: With the Tampa Bay quick throws to neutralize the blitzes/pass rush, it didn't seem like our DBs were pressing enough to take away space? I'd rather seem them up on the receivers at the snap, being aggressive, not scared to get beat deep. — @mtgowdy

AK: You would be right about the off coverage. We didn't see much pressing at the line of scrimmage from the Vikings' young cornerbacks against Tampa's receivers. Tampa Bay eventually figured out by halftime to throw quick and underneath against Brian Flores' seven-at-the-line pressure looks. This may be a coaching style preferred by Flores, who mostly kept throws in front of defensive backs outside of the 28-yard touchdown by Mike Evans, in which safety Josh Metellus admitted getting beat by a double move. Perhaps the off coverage was a game plan-specific outcome. But it's important to remember that Minnesota's second and third corners — Akayleb Evans and Mekhi Blackmon — have four combined NFL starts. They're far from proven in terms of getting physical at the line without drawing flags or allowing big plays.

Q: Could you explain what the gunner is on special teams? I hear it all the time but I am not certain what position does. — Kevin P.

AK: The gunners are positions on the Vikings punt team. They're lined up on the outsides – closest to the sidelines – and have the green light to attack the opposing punt returner. They're the only punt-team players, other than the punter, who don't have to block. It's an important position because they get the first chance to tackle the punt returner. Receiver Jalen Nailor and cornerback NaJee Thompson handled those duties in Week 1. Thompson, an undrafted rookie in his first NFL game, had some ups and downs. He missed Tampa's returner on a 16-yard return during the final drive.

Q: What happened to receiver Justin Jefferson in the second half? He seemed to be on pace for another record day. — Jordan

AK: Jefferson had two grabs for 12 yards after halftime. The Vikings only had 22 plays, in which Cousins attempted 15 throws. So there wasn't a ton of reps with which to work. The Buccaneers had three drives of 10-plus plays, which kept Minnesota's offense off the field. However, there were some opportunities. Head coach Kevin O'Connell was asked Monday about Cousins' third-down throw to Jordan Addison that was deflected by Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis. Jefferson appeared to be open farther downfield on the same side. O'Connell said the Vikings hit on the same play earlier in the game. "Kirk felt like there was a chance to drive that ball and get the throw. It was a really good play by Davis," O'Connell said. "Maybe we find JJ, maybe we find the backside, but either way [Cousins] is playing exactly like we talk about ... but yeah, that was a chance to possibly, [if] we make that play, the drive is going and maybe we find a way to win that one with a significant drive to finish the game."