The Minnesota Vikings could be missing two offensive starters on Sunday, Nov. 22.
Rookie guard Ezra Cleveland missed his second straight day of practice Thursday because of an ankle injury, and fullback C.J. Ham was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. It is uncertain if either will play against Dallas at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Cleveland was hurt early in Monday night’s 19-13 win at Chicago, the fourth straight game he started at right guard. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was impressed with how he gutted out the injury.
“Boy, has Ezra played well,” Kubiak said. “He played hurt (on Monday). It was impressive. He got hurt, I think, on the first series of the game and plays the whole game against some great players — and makes it through.”
Kubiak said Brett Jones and Oli Udoh have been working at right guard in practice this week. Jones would be the starter if Cleveland can’t play against the Cowboys.
“Brett’s a fine player, very bright, so you’ve got two centers side by side,” Kubiak said of Jones, who started three games at center for the Vikings in 2018. “I know he’s champing at the bit if he does get a chance to start this week, if Ezra can’t go. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him, and this team loves him. He works really hard. He’s a backup player on this team, but, boy, he’s a leader.”
Ham missed practice Thursday for a second straight day after being listed on the injury report Wednesday with a designation of “not injury-related.” He played against the Bears after missing two practices last week, when he was listed with a shoulder injury and with a designation of “not injury-related.”
If Ham can’t play, the Vikings likely would elevate fullback Jake Bargas off the practice squad for Sunday’s game. He has been working with the first team in practice.
The Vikings listed cornerback Cameron Dantzler (concussion), tight end Irv Smith Jr. (groin) and defensive end Hercules Mata’afa (ankle) as limited in practice Thursday, the same designations they had Wednesday. They listed center Garrett Bradbury (shoulder) as a full participant after he was limited Wednesday. Dantzler has missed the past two games, Smith sat out at Chicago, and Mata’afa played against the Bears.
After giving up averages of 29.3 points and 412.9 yards per outing in their first eight games, the Vikings had by far their best defensive effort Monday, allowing season-low totals in points (13) and yards (149).
“I think we got a little bit of confidence,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. “When you play good, you show a little more emotion, and obviously we made a lot of plays on Monday night, and the guys were starting to feel like, ‘Hey, this is how we’re supposed to look as a defense.’ ”
The Vikings’ many young defensive players are gaining experience each week. And Pro Bowlers Eric Kendricks at linebacker and Harrison Smith at safety have been strong all season.
“I feel our effort was really high (Monday) on defense,” Kendricks said. “There were times where people were missing tackles and kind of getting frustrated in a series, but when you look at the film, we had teammates that were rallying to the ball and right there as soon as they missed it. So, it’s going to take a group effort.”
Making a point
Co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson went to great lengths recently to make a point about the Vikings’ linemen.
“I asked them in the meeting, ‘OK, how many first-round picks are in this room? Raise your hand,’ ” Patterson said. “And nobody raised their hand. ‘How many second-round picks in this room?’ Nobody raised their hand. ‘How many third-round picks in this room?’ Nobody raised their hand.”
Of the nine defensive linemen on the 53-man roster, none was drafted higher than the fourth round. Among the starters, tackle Jaleel Johnson and end Jalyn Holmes were fourth-round picks, and tackle Shamar Stephen and end Ifeadi Odenigbo both went in the seventh round.
All-pro defensive end Danielle Hunter is out for the season due to a neck injury. But even he was just a third-round pick.
“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what round you came in,” Patterson said. “What matters is what you do when you get here and are you willing to pay the price every day to improve as a player?”