Depleted offensive line not new challenge for Kirk Cousins

EAGAN, Minn. -- John DeFilippo preaches two absolutes as an offensive coordinator: run the football and protect the quarterback. Few teams in the NFL, he believes, are able to achieve success if they can't do both at a high level.

Without Nick Easton (neck/back), Mike Remmers (ankle) and Pat Elflein (PUP), the challenge of protecting Kirk Cousins becomes more difficult. Not having three starters on the offensive line has forced Minnesota to adjust its personnel in practice, making Saturday's preseason game in Denver an early gauge of the strength of the unit's depth structure with several expected absences.

"We will know very early how we're holding up, up front," DeFilippo said. "I anticipate us holding up really, really good because we're playing a darn good defensive line out here and holding up pretty good."

In place of Easton, DeFilippo notes second-year center Cornelius Edison has yet to mess up a snap with the first-team offensive line. Tom Compton and Danny Isidora, the two players on the left and right of Edison respectively, have seen their roles as reserve guards morph into fill-in starters.

How the interior performs against Denver's defensive front might determine whether the Vikings decide to seek a guard from the free-agent market to fill holes. Coach Mike Zimmer said this week that Cousins would be in the game for as long as the first-team offensive line is on the field. Depending on how the first series goes will determine the length of both of their outings.

Playing with a makeshift line is nothing new to the seven-year veteran Cousins. Last season in Washington, he played behind 36 different combinations and was sacked 41 times for a loss of 342 yards.

"It is a challenge," Cousins said. "I’ve played with a depleted offensive line a little bit last year and it's certainly not preferred. Much of the offensive line play is like quarterback where you have players who down the road you know are going to be good players, but they may not be there yet and so it takes time, it takes reps. It takes these preseason games. We've got to throw them in the fire and get them work so that they can take those next steps. I see it as a great challenge for me as a quarterback.

"I look around the league at some of the all-time greats that are playing right now and they've had a revolving door at offensive line and they never really caused a drop in their play. So if I ever want to be mentioned among those guys, I've got to be able to play regardless of who's in front of me. So I'll take pride in hopefully being able to produce at a high level regardless of who is out there."

The Vikings' first preseason game also presents several tests for DeFilippo, who plans to be on the field calling plays. Finding ways to make Cousins' preseason debut comfortable begins with compensating for linemen who have less experience.

"You don't just go throw a guy out on an island and expect him to go block Von Miller one-on-one," DeFilippo said. "You've got to help them. There's certain situations where we'll have some things up, protection-wise, to help either the right side of the line, left side of the line. To me, that's coaching and helping your guys out."

DeFilippo might also choose to adjust where Cousins releases the ball as a way to alleviate pressure and avoid sacks.

"That's where you always want a great playcaller who can look at your personnel and then say, 'OK, schematically, what can we do to accentuate our strengths and hide our weaknesses?' And one of the ways that you can protect yourself against an elite pass rush is to create rollouts, create movements, where the Von Millers of the world don't know that you're going to be setting up every single time in the exact same spot," Cousins said. "And not only launch points but snap counts and other ways that you can keep those guys guessing as they rush the quarterback so that it's not an easy tell, play in and play out."

DeFilippo and Cousins will also begin working on their sideline dynamic to figure out what works best in a game. Maintaining constant communication through a collaborative effort is something DeFilippo hopes to carry over into the season.

"At the end of the day, I always tell our quarterbacks this -- you guys are the ones out there throwing it, not me," DeFilippo said. "So we want them to be as comfortable as they can in everything that we do. And that starts in the middle of the week. If there's a play that we practice a couple times that needs a little bit of seasoning as we call it, it's out of the plan if they don't feel comfortable throwing it. So you're always making adjustments to the game plan in the middle of the week and in the game whether it be a route or a protection or the way you're calling something up front."