MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings' defense — a unit that ranks second in the league in defense, and fourth in sacks — was already going to be a stern challenge for any offensive line the Indianapolis Colts trotted out to the U.S. Bank Stadium turf Sunday afternoon.
But thanks to a variety of injuries up front, the Colts on Sunday used an offensive line that included three rookies at center, right guard and right tackle, and had a left guard in Jonotthan Harrison, a natural center, playing the position in a game for just the second time.
A few days before the game, an optimistic Chuck Pagano was asked about the challenge of such an inexperienced offensive front going up against one of the best defenses in the league.
"They're up for the challenge," Pagano said. "They're going to play great."
They would do just that.
The line dominated in all areas, opening plenty of holes in the running game and keeping quarterback Andrew Luck clean to the tune of zero sacks, and the Colts used that performance to their advantage in their 34-6 dominating road victory over the Vikings.
"You just see those guys put the time in, day in and day out," Pagano said after Sunday's game. "They prepare for the moment, and they rose to the occasion. They played well."
The Colts on Sunday used their usual left tackle and center, Anthony Castonzo and first-round pick Ryan Kelly, as well as rookie Joe Haeg, who has been a mainstay at both guard and tackle for most of the season, set to play right guard in place of Denzelle Good, who missed his second straight game with a concussion.
But with Harrison at left guard for Jack Mewhort, who was placed on injured reserve last week after injuring his knee, and another rookie Le'Raven Clark getting his first-career start at right tackle in place of an injured Joe Reitz (back), the Colts knew they'd have to get in a solid week of practice to get as much continuity as possible working in their favor heading into their game in Minnesota.
The result? A season-high-tying 161 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground on the afternoon, and zero sacks allowed to a Vikings defense that came into the game with 35 sacks, which ranked fourth in the league.
Not only did the likes of Danielle Hunter (10.5 sacks in 2016), Everson Griffen (eight sacks) and Brian Robison (seven sacks) fail to register a sack on Sunday, but they barely even sniffed Luck's white No. 12 jersey thanks to the big men up front for Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis Colts traveled to play the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15.
The first half of the season, the Colts' offense line had an obvious issue giving up sacks (their 31 sacks allowed were the most in the league). But in the six games since, no matter who Indianapolis has played along the line, those numbers have improved drastically, as the Colts have allowed just nine sacks during that span.
"I had full confidence in those guys to go out there and do a really good job," said Luck, who completed 21 of 28 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns on the day. "I think I told someone last night during our production meeting that, 'You will be pleasantly surprised with how these guys play.' They work their butts off. They do everything right and it was really, really good to see it all come together today."
One of the other primary beneficiaries of the Colts' stout play up front on Sunday was No. 2 running back Robert Turbin, who ran seven times for 32 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which was a tough, tough six-yard scoring play that extended Indianapolis' lead to 24-0 in the second quarter.
Turbin — who combined with Frank Gore to run 33 times for 133 yards on Sunday — gave all the credit to the offensive linemen up front.
"The offensive line. Plain and simple," Turbin said when asked about how the offense was able to get things going against the Vikings. "I mean, those guys a great job today. Pushed guys off of the ball, opened up some great holes, finishing, their blocks at the end of the play — I mean, if you want to talk about playing to the whistle, offensive line did a great job of doing that today."
To Turbin, the final result on Sunday was "just a testament" to all of the offensive linemen's hard work, especially those thrust into starting spots.
"Every single day they prepare, they work hard in practice, and they've been getting better all year long," he said. "And today, when we had to have it, they showed up big time. And, man, it's incredible to see that."
No matter who the Colts trot out along the offensive line next week, the challenge remains tough in their next game on Saturday against the Raiders in Oakland, who feature Khalil Mack, whose 11 sacks are tied for the fifth most in the league.
But after the way the offensive line gelled and performed on Sunday against the Vikings, the Colts are confident that they can keep the momentum going the rest of the way.
"I mean, I can't say enough about those guys and the job that Coach (Joe) Philbin, Coach (Joe) Gilbert and Coach (Frank) Giufre, and the way those guys played," Pagano said. "This is a really good football team, and the No. 2-ranked defense in the league, and they do a great job coaching them; they've got good players. And for our guys to come in and step up and rise to challenge, it was just a tremendous thing."