The Minnesota Vikings have the lowest run/pass ratio in the NFL this season.
They have handed the ball off on just 32.7 percent of total plays, which has drawn frustration from head coach Mike Zimmer. He simply responded “no” to a question about whether the Vikings ran the ball enough for his liking against the New England Patriots last Sunday.
Running back Dalvin Cook was succeeding on the ground, carrying the ball nine times for 84 yards, but the Vikings didn’t stick consistently with him in the run game. Through the air, Cook managed eight touches, but for only 22 yards. Zimmer explained that they had drawn up more ways to get Cook involved.
“We had some other plays designed to get him the football that weren’t check downs and the ball didn’t get to him,” Zimmer said.
Meanwhile New England’s bevy of running backs and playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson had a strong day against the Vikings defense.
Rookie Sony Michel rushed 17 times for 63 yards, James White caught seven passes for 92 yards (42 on one end-of-half play) and rushed for 26 more yards, Rex Burkhead grabbed two passes for 21 yards, Patterson had two receptions and fullback James Develin caught a nine-yard pass and hammered home two touchdowns.
Here’s how the snap counts were divided up for the Pats’ RBs:
New England’s top two running backs have combined for 301 total touches. Both rank in the top 30 in the entire NFL.
There are several ways in which New England used their running backs that the Vikings could pull from going forward.
The use of two-back sets is one of them. The Patriots used numerous alignments, including an old-school I-formation, two-back set out of the shotgun and having one running back in the slot with the other in the backfield.
Minnesota’s offense did that once earlier this year against Detroit, but has not used Cook and Latavius Murray on the field at the same time otherwise. Fullback CJ Ham has 89 snaps all year in the backfield and 20 as a receiver. Last season he was on the field for 175 plays in the backfield and 42 as a receiver.
During a stretch in which Cook was suffering from a hamstring injury, Murray ran 63 times for 322 yards (5.1 yards per carry) but since Cook has returned, the 2015 Pro Bowl running back has picked up 80 yards on 29 runs.
Using both backs at the same time might help the Vikings become more efficient and keep the ball longer. They currently rank 25th in average drive time.
Below is an example from the first Patriots drive of the game. Burkhead comes in motion from the slot to the backfield. Tom Brady runs play-action with Burkhead and both running backs take off on the same side of the field with White running a vertical route. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Chris Hogan both run routes to clear out space on the far side of the field. Had Brady seen White, it would have been an easy touchdown as he ran past linebacker Anthony Barr. The Patriots still pick up a big gain on the swing pass.
As well as receiver Aldrick Robinson has fit in, the Vikings don’t have a truly dangerous third option in the passing game aside from Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, so getting the ball to Cook in creative ways is vital to the offense’s success.
Later in the game, New England used a slip screen to create yards after catch for White. The play had some interesting wrinkles with Patterson running a fake end around and Gronk cracking back on a block across the formation. A slant route by Edelman also worked to create open space.
The Patriots use White as the centerpiece of their offense despite having proven weapons in Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon and Julien Edelman. White has 74 receptions and 76 runs, averaging 6.6 yards per touch.
In using White as a receiving weapon, they also ran a version of the jet sweep, only it’s technically a pass play.
Brady catches the ball and immediately drops it off to White, who is coming in motion.
With the Vikings playing their linebackers up on the line of scrimmage, White was able to burst by the first level while his tackle got out and blocked cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Notice the block Hogan, who knocks Everson Griffen inside just enough to allow White to get outside.
The Vikings have used forms of all of these plays at one time or another. Zimmer twice praised a jet sweep from Cook early in the win over the Packers. They haven’t consistently used/succeeded with them enough.
This week presents an opportunity for Minnesota’s offense to use Cook and Murray to attack the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football. Seattle currently allows 5.1 yards per carry against, tied for dead last in the NFL. Pete Carroll’s defense also sits 28th in receiving yards allowed per game in the passing game to running backs.
The Vikings certainly aren’t the first team ever to be slowed down on the road against Bill Belichick, but if they can’t bounce back and get the most out of their two talented running backs, there will be more pressure on the offense as the Vikings battle for playoff position.