One of the reasons the Minnesota Vikings’ offense went from 23rd to 10th in points last season was their execution in the red zone.
In 2016, the Vikings ranked 28th in red zone touchdown percentage. Last year that jumped up to 12th (tied) behind the play calling of Pat Shurmur.
It didn’t hurt that Case Keenum had a knack for finding the right man inside the 20. Inside the red zone, Keenum went 34-for-54 with 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions.
At OTAs on Wednesday, the Vikings worked on red zone for a large portion of the practice.
“We spend an awful lot of time in the red zone,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think this is the fourth day in the red zone of some sort, out of five. I think it’s just important we get a lot of work in there. We put a big emphasis on it last year and we are going to continue to do so.”
New Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins didn’t have that type of success in the red zone last year. While his team ranked 16th in touchdown percentage, he was 17th in red zone quarterback rating (more than 70 passes)
Pro Football Focus’s Steve Palazzolo notes that PFF did not grade Cousins favorably while in scoring position.
Cousins ranked 39th out of 46 qualifiers in red zone accuracy percentage last two seasons https://t.co/ySSvuKe32U
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) May 31, 2018
There are a number of factors that could play into sub-par play inside the 20. As we saw with Shurmur, play calling made a huge difference as Keenum routinely found wide open targets. Personnel is also a difference maker. Not only did the Vikings have two top receivers, they also sported one of the best goal line running backs in the NFL in Latavius Murray and a tight end with NBA height.
In 2017, Kyle Rudolph had 17 catches on 19 red zone targets, seven turned into touchdowns and six first downs.
“There was a play today in the red zone where I didn’t throw it to him and right away after the play Kevin Stefanski, my quarterback coach, was saying, ‘Hey, in that situation, you might want to give Kyle a chance. Even though he looks covered, you have to throw him the ball. He is open. He can prove you right,'” Cousins said. “It is learning experiences like that we have to have him out there so we can get those reps and get those coaching points then hopefully the next time give him a chance to make a play for us.”
Beyond Rudolph’s size — 6-foot-6, 265-pounds — his reliable hands gave Keenum a reliable target on all short passes. On 47 throws that traveled under 10 yards, Rudolph caught 42 of them. In the red zone, he was also able to score from outside of the goal line with four of his seven TDs coming from beyond the opponent’s 10 yard line.
During his career, Rudolph has caught touchdowns from six different quarterbacks. Christian Ponder still leads the way with 13 TDs tossed to the veteran tight end. If things go according to plan in the red zone, Cousins will have a chance to chase that number this year.