EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings’ offense has been an enigma in 2018.
At times, it has appeared that they could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the NFL. Take for example the fourth quarter and overtime of their Week 2 matchup against the Green Bay Packers in which the Vikings produced 22 points. Quarterback Kirk Cousins went for 425 yards and four touchdowns against the Pack. Two weeks later against Los Angeles, he threw for 422 yards and three touchdowns.
Since the explosion against the Rams, the Vikings’ offense is 18th in yards per play and 26th in percentage of plays that have resulted in either a first down or touchdown. Those numbers have dropped from 9th and 10th, respectively (per Pro-Football Reference).
Cousins is 21st in yards per attempt since Week 5.
As the Vikings head into the deciding portion of their season in which they will face playoff contenders four of their final six games in the Packers, Patriots, Seahawks and Bears, they will need to be more effective on the offensive side if they want to reach the postseason.
In Sunday night’s 25-20 loss, the Vikings only managed six points through three quarters of the game and struggled mightily against an excellent Bears defense.
On Monday, head coach Mike Zimmer was asked for explanations for the team’s recent inability to put together four quarters of successful offensive play. He talked about players adapting to John DeFilippo’s offense.
“We do have a lot of guys going in different spots. It might be, what is the best way to say this, it might be a little volume, a little too much volume,” Zimmer said. “Too much. Let’s just play football. You run a really good out route, you run the out route. He runs a good curl, you run the curl. You know what I mean? So, maybe we just need to focus a little bit on not trying to trick the other team quite so much.”
The Vikings’ head coach continued…
“You want to add new plays every week and new plays and new plays and new plays. If you’re not executing, it might be the best play in the world. Vince Lombardi might have designed it but if you can’t execute it, then it doesn’t do you any good. Can’t protect for it or whatever it is.”
As the Vikings head into a huge swing game against the Green Bay Packers, it’s clear they will be searching for answers on offense.
With that said, that’s have a look at a few statistical areas where they have had issues and whether they can improve…
Key stat: 26th in giveaways
Against the Bears, Dalvin Cook fumbled in the red zone and two Cousins interceptions led to 10 points. One of them was an Eddie Jackson pick-six that put Chicago up 22-6 in the fourth quarter. The Vikings’ quarterback has eight fumbles and seven interceptions on the year. He has either thrown at least one INT or fumbled in every game since Week 1.
“I really don’t think he is panicking,” Zimmer said of Cousins’ turnovers. “I don’t think that is the case at all. I think there are times when he wants to get the ball down the field so he’ll wait for guys to get open and instead of taking a sure thing sometimes. Other than the turnovers, I have a hard time faulting him. This kid is tough, he plays outstanding. He works his rear end off. He is a great team guy. We just need to and quite honestly, not all of them are on him. Guys are in the wrong spot sometimes, too. That is not just our team, that is every team. I think all of those things combined make it a little bit more difficult.”
Zimmer has been emphasizing the value of winning the turnover battle each year as head coach and has largely had success. Last season the Vikings had the third fewest giveaways in the NFL.
On the topic of whether the VIkings can fix their giveaway problem, a study on turnovers found certain teams are more prone to turnovers, but a team with extremes in turnover rate usually will come back toward the mean as the season goes along. The study concluded:
“Within a season, NFL turnovers correlate weakly with prior game performance . A team with a strong season-to-date record of winning the turnover battle is likely to regress to the mean; conversely, teams losing in turnover margin at a point within a season tend to improve on this statistic moving forward.”
It would make sense that the Vikings would want to focus on the quick passing game to cut down on interceptions, but Cousins already averages the fourth lowest air yards per pass attempt. He is also the fourth least aggressive quarterback in the NFL according to NFL NextGen stats, which track how often a QB throws toward a covered receiver.
In a small sample size of six games, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to predict how many turnovers the Vikings’ offense will have or whether they will cut down on them. But they can control the impact those turnovers have. For example, if they weren’t producing points on only 33.6 percent of drives (24th), the Vikings might be able to overcome some miscues. The best way to combat mistakes is to be more effective as a whole.
Key stat: 31th in yards per carry on second down (3.3 YPC)
Following a Vikings win against the New York Jets, Zimmer mentioned wanting to run the ball on second down more often. The league as a whole is having decent success creating third-and-short situations or first downs on the ground. The league leader in second down runs is creating a first down on 40.0 percent of carries, whereas the Vikings are only doing so on 22.4 percent (30th).
With the current state of the offensive line, it will not be easy to make a huge jump in run effectiveness, but the Vikings will not match up with a team in the top half of the league in yards per attempt allowed the rest of the year aside from their second matchup with Chicago. The Seahawks are 28th, Lions 27th and Dolphins 26th against the run.
In Week 17 of the 2017 season, Pat Shurmur surprised the Bears by running out six offensive linemen throughout the game and the Vikings ran over Chicago. That might be an idea worth trying.
A study by ESPN’s Brian Burke in 2014 had some interesting findings about second down running. First being that it is rarely a smart play according to Estimated Points Added. The other was that offensive coordinators tend to dial up more runs on second-and-10, which also happens to be the worst time to run.
Key stat: 23rd in touchdown percentage
The Vikings are coming away with field goals far too often inside the 20 yard line. One area to begin their improvement over the final half dozen games is finding Kyle Rudolph. Usually a master inside scoring position, Rudolph has just one catch on six targets inside the 10-yard line and three catches on nine targets in the red zone all year. Last season he caught 14 of 16 throws in the red zone with six touchdowns.
Running inside the 20 is needed as well. Minnesota is 28th in first down percentage inside the 20 and is tied for 27th in rushing touchdowns.
DeFilippo explained his red zone philosophy last week:
“Best red zone teams in the NFL have two things in common. Number one, they can run the football down there inside the 10. Number two, they throw the ball in the end zone. It’s not a dink and dunk. I am talking about even from the 20 in. So they throw the ball in the end zone. There is certain things and certain ways to throw the ball in the end zone, in the red zone. A lot of it is personnel driven. What I mean by that is there is going to be an extra player in there. When you watch teams run the ball in the red zone, it is usually the back runs somebody over, the back makes somebody miss. There is going to be an extra guy there. The backs know that and they have to be able to have that collision at the goal line. I think you are seeing that with us with Latavius [Murray] this year. Either that or make them miss. You just have to know that extra player is going to be there.”
There should be some concern about Cousins’ recent history inside the 20. Washington ranked 30th in 2016 and 16th last year. He is 21st in both red zone completion percentage and quarterback rating since 2016 (among QBs with 100 or more red zone passes).
Key stat: Graded 31st in team pass blocking by PFF
The only thing DeFilippo can do to help protect Cousins is to work to the strengths of Elflein and O’Neill in the passing game with screens. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray have combined for 34 receptions this season for 257 yards. There are 12 running backs with more receptions than both of the Vikings’ top backs — though Cook has only played in five games.
As far as personnel switches go, the Vikings do not have many options, but one bold move would be to put Brett Jones in at left guard. While Jones is not a capable run blocker, the Vikings’ two best pass blocking performances this season came with him in the lineup and he was one of the top pass blocking centers by Pro Football Focus metrics last season.
Fullback CJ Ham could also lend a hand. He took 163 snaps last season, but only 43 so far this year. He hasn’t given up a single hurry.
Moving the pocket is another potential option. But the best play is to have Cousins get rid of the ball quickly. When he throws under 2.5 seconds, Cousins’ rating is 102.2. When he waits more than 2.5 seconds, it only drops to 97.7, but he’s also been sacked 17 of his 26 times when holding the ball longer and thrown five of seven INTs.
Key stat: Cousins 22nd in percentage of plays with play-action, 5th in play-action completion percentage
One explanation for for the lack of play-action is that the Vikings have been trailing pretty often this season. Cousins has the second most yards in the NFL when behind by 10 points or more.
While the common perception of play-action is that it doesn’t work without a strong running game. That simply isn’t true. The best evidence for that is Sam Bradford’s 110 quarterback rating on play-action despite the NFL’s worst rushing game. Carson Wentz is No. 1 in completion percentage on play-action while his rushing attack ranks 20th.
The Rams are running play-action more than anyone in the NFL at 38.0 percent, while Cousins is using it 18.8 percent of the time.
Distribution to weapons
Key stat: Kyle Rudolph: Nine catches on 15 targets for 96 yards and four first downs over the past four weeks
The Vikings simply have not found ways to use anyone else outside of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen consistently. Aldrick Robinson has four touchdowns but only nine catches. Cousins only has a 76.9 rating when targeting Laquon Treadwell and tight ends outside of Rudolph have seven total receptions.
The roster lacks a Jarius Wright type — a reliable player who can make one or two catches but both come in big situations. Chad Beebe may have more opportunities to become that type of player. He has four catches in the last two games. Ameer Abdullah made a 10-yard reception against the Bears. In 2017, four players caught more than 50 passes and five more between 10 and 20 catches. It seems unlikely that feat will be anywhere close to being repeated despite the Vikings throwing more often.
Key stat: Third worst in yards after catch average
Leaders in Yards After the Catch (YAC Yards) this season.#ChiefsKingdom & #LARams looking strong here, shockingly. #KCvsLAR #GoNiners #FightForEachOther #HereWeGo #LARams #FinsUp #GoPackGo #Jets #Coltsarrow pic.twitter.com/auL9aonyu8
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 20, 2018
The combination of low air yards with low yards after catch speaks to the lack of effectiveness in the passing game to running backs. Jerick McKinnon was 10th in total YAC last season, averaging around nine yards after catch. Earlier this season Stefon Diggs was effective on screens, but the Vikings did not use catch-and-throw plays in his direction against the Bears.
The Vikings aren’t going to suddenly become to New Orleans Saints offensive line. Cousins isn’t suddenly going to protect the football like Kurt Warner in his prime. There will have to be schematic shifts around these things to maximize some of the other playmakers on the team outside of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs while getting players on the same page with their offensive coordinator and quarterback.
The good news for the Vikings’ offense is that they will have chances to bounce back. Chicago is the only current top 10 defense they face the rest of the way.