Right tackle Brian O’Neill, the first-time team captain, was asked moments after the Vikings’ 23-7 victory on Sunday over the Packers how rookie Ed Ingram, the new right guard, fared in his NFL debut.
“If you average over [four] yards a carry and over 350 yards of total offense, you had to have done a good job,” O’Neill said. “Just the way he bounced back from new looks, different adversity that will always hit throughout a game. He handled himself like an adult.”
There were hiccups. Kenny Clark, the Packers’ interior Pro Bowl defender, twice beat Ingram, the second-round pick, to pressure quarterback Kirk Cousins and stifle third downs. But Cousins was only sacked once — on one of those third downs — and operated a balanced attack that made for what left guard Ezra Cleveland called a “breath of fresh air” to start this season under head coach Kevin O’Connell.
O’Neill took a question about how it felt to succeed against what’s considered to be a stout Packers defense, and made a bigger statement.
“We’re a violent group, too,” O’Neill said. “You’re going to see a better offensive line from us than you have in the past couple years.”
That was the case when Cousins stepped up into a wide-open pocket and unleashed a 64-yard bomb to receiver Justin Jefferson in the second quarter. Cleveland shoved Clark to the ground, while center Garrett Bradbury and Ingram chased Packers defensive lineman Dean Lowry out of the area, setting a solid stage for Cousins to throw.
Jefferson had a career-high 184 receiving yards while catching nine of 11 targets. Cousins was hit on three of those 11 throws to Jefferson, but the line often gave him just enough time to avoid the sack.
“Whenever we give Kirk time,” left tackle Christian Darrisaw said, “he’s going to let it rip and it’s going to be an explosive play. That’s why we know, give him time and he’s going to make the play happen.”
The development of the line’s youngest players — Cleveland, Darrisaw and Ingram — will be critical to how well they play together immediately. Sunday offered a positive first step against a formidable Packers defense, which gave Ingram — the rookie — some welcome-to-the-league moments.
“We pulling him along, but he got that dog and that grit to him that we need to fill in that position,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “The will for those guys to get it done, and the want-to, and the physical part is all there.”
While walking off the U.S. Bank Stadium turf after the victory, Cleveland turned to O’Neill and told him this was the first time that he’d been on a Vikings team with a winning record. Cleveland was drafted in 2020’s second round, meaning the entire 2020 draft class is finally on a winning team.
“We all kind of realized that,” Cleveland said. “Coming into this game, we’d never been over .500; been to .500, but never over. I think it’s a big deal for us, because being over .500 in the NFL is hard to do. It’s two years coming and I’m excited about it.”
A young team could find stability in its offensive line, which has been anything but over the past few years.
“We have to spend a lot more time in that [winning] column,” O’Neill said. “We’ll get there. This was just one day, one step at a time.”