Every time he rushes for more than 100 yards in a game, Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith takes his offensive line out to dinner. With guests such as 320-pound left tackle Todd Steussie (left) and 353-pound right tackle Korey Stringer, the meals can get expensive. Sometimes they start with five-pound lobsters—as appetizers—and it's not uncommon for the bill for Smith and his linemen to be more than $1,000.
But keeping Steussie and Stringer happy is money well spent for the explosive Minnesota offense. That unit was ranked second in the NFL in total offense through Sunday, thanks largely to a line built around the two tackles, first-round draft picks who over the last four years have developed into one of the league's most consistent blocking tandems. In an era of patchwork offensive lines Steussie and Stringer already rank sixth and seventh, respectively, in career starts for Vikings tackles. "Our linemen may never get credit for offensive productivity," says wideout Cris Carter, "but they are the nuts and bolts that make everything go."
For his good work, Steussie, who was drafted out of Cal in 1994 and made his first Pro Bowl appearance three years later, was rewarded last February with a five-year, $22 million contract. He hasn't been a disappointment since. In a 31-28 win over the Chicago Bears on Sept. 27, he graded out at a near-perfect 1.96, one of the highest marks ever awarded a Minnesota lineman.
The same month Steussie signed his deal, Stringer celebrated the birth of his son Kodie. Stringer lost 40 pounds and reported to training camp a step faster and in his best condition since he was drafted out of Ohio State in 1995. He had a breakout game against the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 5 when he dominated defensive end Reggie White, as the Vikings rolled up 545 yards of offense in a 37-24 win. "We would like to become known as a great line," says Stringer, who is eligible to become a free agent after the season. "That would be nice. But that comes with winning. Usually for linemen the only recognition you get is from your mother and your wife."