When Vikings’ 263-pound defensive end Danielle Hunter landed on the most important knee in Cincinnati sports for the fourth of five sacks of Joe Burrow on Sunday, the quarterback stayed on the ground for an extra tick before being helped to his feet.
He hobbled toward the bench, trying not to put pressure on the knee that got rolled under the Minnesota edge rusher.
If 56,525 fans could react in unison, the stadium would have shaken with an exclamation of, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me?’
Thanks to a stationary bike session and some adrenaline, Burrow would prove fine and is a full go in practice for this week’s game against the Bears. But despite the dramatic 27-24 overtime victory, nobody could feel comfortable watching Burrow take seven hits on the day and see multiple free runners teeing off on the recovered quarterback.
Even four days removed on Thursday, center Trey Hopkins takes a deep breath and his eyes roll thinking about the moment Burrow laid on the turf before hobbling off.
“Terrifying,” Hopkins said. “Oh no. You hate to see that, especially for Joe, knowing what it takes to get back from the ACL and what it takes to be back on the field right now. No. Especially not to Joe. It’s definitely something we have to eliminate.”
After an offseason spent attempting to eliminate it and secure protection for the face of the franchise, to be sure, these five sacks, this moment, was a bad look.
But was it as bad as it looked? And what does that mean facing another wrecking crew of talented pass rushers, most notably Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, Sunday in Chicago?
Well, if you ask the man getting hit, he would say those counting sacks missed the point.
“The offensive line played great,” Burrow said. “We ran the ball really efficiently. They were really good in pass protection. The breakdowns in pass protection were not the offensive line’s fault. It was elsewhere. So, it was very encouraging the way they played.”
Even if the line played like the worst moments of 2020, Burrow wouldn’t throw his protectors under the bus. But there’s partial truth to his compliments.
Head coach Zac Taylor pinned two of the five sacks on the line. Hopkins got beaten twice in one-on-one situations by defensive tackle Michael Pierce, leading to both of his burials of Burrow. Nick Vigil came free up the middle for the first sack of the game, a miscommunication of protection on the inside. Drew Sample was left alone and got beaten easily by Hunter to the point Samaje Perine couldn’t even make an impact as the second helper. Perine later failed to make contact on a blitzing Harrison Smith for another.
“There were some glitches,” Burrow said. “It wasn’t on them. It’s just some first game — that’s what happens in the first game sometimes.”
What happened in the first game happened too often in the 10 games Burrow started last year. But a closer look at the overall picture shows why the quarterback was able to post the most efficient game of his career despite only throwing 27 passes. When pressure did come, the Vikings finished. But the pressure didn’t come as often and really came at an average level as seen across the league Sunday.