Common sense would tell you the Minnesota Vikings needed to run the ball more against the New England Patriots.
It doesn’t take Vince Lombardi to look at Dalvin Cook’s nine rushes for 84 yards in a game that was close into the fourth quarter and ask: Why didn’t he run more often?
Head coach Mike Zimmer alluded to his frustration after the game and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo admitted on Friday that there were situations where they should have dialed up Cook’s number.
“There were two or three instances where we threw the football, like on that first-and-10 from around the 26, that we probably should’ve run the football. I made that aware to [Mike Zimmer] and my thoughts on that,” DeFilippo said. “It’s just like anybody, I look to go out each week and improve myself. You’re always self-evaluating yourself and looking for ways to get better.”
The team’s run-pass ratio has been a topic for most of the season. The Vikings currently are the NFL’s most pass-heavy team, throwing the ball on 67.3 percent of their plays.
But that stat doesn’t exactly tell the story when it comes to the Vikings’ offensive balance. The amount of time the Vikings have spent trailing by wide margins has skewed the numbers. In fact, only Derek Carr, Baker Mayfield and Matthew Stafford have thrown the ball more total times when down by 14 or more points than Vikings QB Kirk Cousins.
As a team, the Vikings have 106 pass plays and 14 run plays when down by at least two touchdowns.
DeFilippo is still dialing up more passes than runs when the score is close, but the numbers look at lot different when we take out the must-throw circumstances of being down by 14 or more.
In one-score situations in the first three quarters, the Vikings are still a pass-heavy team at around 65 percent, but the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals have run fewer times. The league sits at 57 percent pass-run in the first three quarters of close games.
Since the Vikings only average 4.1 yards per carry as a team, tied for 24th, it’s easy to see why they would lean on a passing game that has two of the best receivers in the game.
DeFilippo said he focuses much more on attacking a team’s weaknesses rather than getting the run-pass ratio closer to 50-50.
“Each way you attack an opponent is different,” DeFilippo said. “I think if you just go in with the same plan to attack an opponent each week, I don’t think at times that is going to give you the best chance for success. I think you try to exploit the weakness whatever you view that defense is and find different ways to exploit that part of the defense.”
Interestingly, some of the teams who have run the ball the most in close games have had successful offenses. The Seahawks and Texans both have more runs than passes in one-score ballgames.
However, the NFL’s most explosive offenses in Los Angeles and New Orleans — even with Pro Bowl running backs — are around 60 percent pass.
Where the Vikings’ offensive issues really stand out is in big situations. They rank 18th overall on third down conversions, fifth worst in third downs and less than four yards, 18th on third-and-10 or more conversions and 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage.
“Consistency in the red zone on third downs, that is what we need to work on,” DeFilippo said. “The thing about the whole running the ball thing to me is, a lot of that, when you saw us against Green Bay we were 7-of-14 on third downs. That allows you to have more plays. We were 1-of-5 in the first half against New England. I think we were 3-of-13 or 4-of-13 overall. It just doesn’t allow you to have any consistent drives. That is what we need to just keep always striving to do is just stay consistent with third down red zone situational football because that allows you to extend drives and extend plays.”
The Vikings also rank 20th in drives that end in a punt and 25th in percentage of drives that end in points.
They are rarely creating explosive plays when they do succeed on third downs, gaining 4.7 yards per play on third downs with more than six yard to go, which is 25th in the league.
While it’s clear the Vikings are not succeeding in key spots to keep drives going or finish with touchdowns, there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg effect with running the ball. Would they be better in those spots if Cook ran more often?
DeFilippo said it’s more about getting him the ball than his rushing numbers.
“We try, we don’t always succeed, but we try to find Dalvin creative ways to get the football in space,” he said. “Sometimes that is not just handing the ball off from the back field. Sometimes that is throwing him a swing screen or trying to get him out in the flat. We did that on first down the other night for a gain of five. If you are in the run world, it’s an efficient run. There are different ways to try to get an athlete like that in space. It’s just always not just from the back field. But yes, would we like to see him carry the ball more? Absolutely.”
Cook does rank in the top 20 in passing targets per game, but only gets around half the touches per game of league leader Todd Gurley.
The question over the final four games isn’t whether the Vikings can run more, it’s whether find more ways to use Cook successfully, especially when it comes to third downs and red zone situations.
There will be opportunities as they face two teams tied for 24th in yards per play allowed in Seattle and Detroit and then the 30th ranked Miami Dolphins before finishing the year against a top defense in Chicago.