EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings' postseason hopes hang in the balance as they head west in Week 14. Their matchup with the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night carries a playoff vibe because a win or loss further affects their chances of playing in January.
"These next four games will determine what we do and where we go and how we perform in the clutch," coach Mike Zimmer said.
Standing at 6-5-1 with four games to go, the Vikings' offense is at a crossroads. While Minnesota’s passing game is ranked seventh overall with quarterback Kirk Cousins, the running game has been up and down all season.
Zimmer is adamant that the Vikings need to run the ball more, particularly after Dalvin Cook totaled just nine carries (an average of 9.33 yards per carry) in a loss at the New England Patriots in Week 13. Achieving better balance offensively has been a point of emphasis for Zimmer all season. If it’s true that the best teams are the ones that run the ball well in December and January, then Minnesota needs to find a solution quickly.
Finding more balance requires an in-depth look at the Vikings' run-pass ratio and how other playoff contenders stack up in that area. And while it’s one thing to talk philosophically about being better in the run, how Minnesota can begin to do that against a Seahawks defense that consistently stacks eight defenders in the box and plays a Cover-3 zone on the back end needs to be examined with realistic expectations.
How the Vikings’ run-pass balance stacks up to other playoff hopefuls
Minnesota’s 253 rushing attempts through the first 13 weeks of the season are the franchise’s lowest since ESPN Stats and Information began tracking NFL team data in 2001. Several things factor into that number being so low, in large part due to Cook’s absence in Week 3 and again from Weeks 5 to 8 and an offensive line that has largely struggled to consistently move defenders off the ball and get to the second level.
The Vikings rank 30th in designed rush percentage (30.3 percent), according to ESPN Stats and Information research, meaning they’re hovering in the 70-30 realm of passing versus running. Taking a look at the NFC playoff picture, that figure is well below any of the division leaders:
NFC West: Rams, 40.6 percent
NFC South: Saints, 45.2 percent
NFC North: Bears, 39.6 percent
NFC East: Cowboys, 40.5 percent
Seattle, which is seeded in the first wild-card spot ahead of Minnesota, leads the league in designed rush percentage with 47.9 percent. Under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the Seahawks are using an old-school approach in the midst of their own race to the playoff finish line with power rusher Chris Carson.
With an increase in passing plays over the past five seasons, the average designed pass/rush ratio by a playoff team is essentially 60-40 (59.7 percent pass vs. 40.3 percent rush).
When the Vikings made the playoffs in 2015, they had a designed rush percentage of 45 percent, while the 2017 team was at 44.5 percent, which saw the teams ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, over 60 playoff teams from the previous five seasons.
Designed runs have been called an average of 37.6 percent of the time this season, which would be the lowest rate in a single season since ESPN began tracking designed plays in 2006. Rushing, as a whole, is down across the league. The NFL is averaging 25.7 rush attempts per team per game, which would be the lowest rate in a single season since at least 1932.
Since 2006, the lowest designed rush percentage by a team that made the playoffs was 30.9 by the Green Bay Packers in 2016. That team beat the New York Giants in the wild-card round and defeated the No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoffs before losing to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.
If the playoffs began today, Minnesota, as the second NFC wild card, would have that Packers team beat by 0.03 percent on designed rushes. It’s not impossible to believe that if things continue to trend the way they are that the Vikings can make a playoff push -- even a deep one -- but finding more balance in the run game could help the Vikings close out games; protect fourth-quarter leads; set up Cousins' play-action game; run the ball in the red zone, instead of forcing tight window throws; and wear teams down up front.
How can the Vikings run the ball more effectively?
The Vikings can pull ideas for how to sustain the run game from a team they faced this season.
The Los Angeles Rams lead the league in percentage of plays run out of 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB). Formation creativity out of the same personnel groupings has made the Rams one of the most explosive and balanced offenses in the NFL. Defenses are kept guessing at whether Jared Goff will throw the ball or hand it off to another player.
"That’s where their outside zone and play-action comes from," ESPN analyst and former NFL player Matt Bowen said. "That’s where their screen game comes from. As a defensive player, when you see that backfield action, you don’t know what’s coming. They run first-down play-action, and it’s not the amount of times you run it, it’s the run-action, which leads to more passing game opportunities."
While the Rams' offensive line is stronger than that of Minnesota, they also incorporate outside zone blocking schemes, in which linemen are blocking an area on the field instead of blocking a man, thus challenging the running back to find the right gap to slip through. Incorporating these blocking schemes into what the Vikings want to do in the run game might better play to the strength of their personnel up front.
"If I had an offensive line that had some issues, I would run more zone runs because you're blocking an area," Bowen said. "You're getting more double-teams or combos that allow guys to secure that area and move up to the second level and block linebackers. When you run outside zone, I always felt that gives running backs options. That’s what the Houston Texans do with Lamar Miller, and Houston doesn’t have a marquee offensive line, as well."
Of Cook’s nine runs at New England, three were outside zone, including his second-longest rush of the day that went for 18 yards in the third quarter.
"Quite honestly, it’s about stretching the defense and then hopefully get a cut-back seam in there typically," Zimmer said. "It’s stretch, stretch, stretch, put your foot in the ground and get back downhill. The ball might start on this hash and it might press to outside the other hash but cut back inside the hash. It makes the defenders run and so that’s where if defenders start turning their shoulders then that’s when cut-back seams occur."
Against the Patriots, the Vikings generated their biggest run of the day using a handful of concepts Bowen believes will continue to generate big gains: creative backfield sets and pre-snap motion.
Midway through the first quarter, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo lined Stefon Diggs up in the backfield in front of Cook. With Adam Thielen and Laquon Treadwell lined up tight inside the numbers, Diggs was sent in motion before the ball was snapped. Using tight end Tyler Conklin to execute a wham block (what a tight end does on a trap play) created a big hole for Cook to run up the sideline for 32 yards.
The most beneficial part of that play? The Vikings can utilize that same formation and concept a handful of times, like the Rams have shown to do often, in both the run and pass game.
"There’s a lot of things you can get off of this formation," Bowen said. "You can run man-beaters, you can run play-action, you can run zone-beaters, you can run Dalvin Cook on outside zone, you can run an RPO off that. It doesn’t mean you’re adding new plays and formations; you’re taking one successful play and building off that. So the next time the defense comes up and they see Stefon Diggs motion, the first thing they’ll be screaming is ‘Here comes the trap.’ So don’t do it. Do something else and catch them."
The Vikings have managed to design concepts in the run game that have led to sizable gains at times this season. The use of misdirection, running the ball on third and less than 6 yards to gain, and designing runs for Cook out of the shotgun are just a handful of ways the Vikings might choose to stick with the run more often.
"I think what Zimmer is getting at is that he wants to see more of it," Bowen said. "He wants to see more zone runs that take the edge and give Dalvin Cook the ability to bounce and the ability to bend the ball, and he wants to see a little more creativity of the formation variety they can use to grab the defender’s eyes. And he wants to see more carries.
"The best way to say it, he wants to see more volume. When you’re playing the New England Patriots, Dalvin Cook should have more than nine carries. He doesn’t need 25, in my opinion; he needs 12 to 15 carries and five targets in the passing game. That gives him 20 total touches; and that’s what a No. 1 back should have. That still is not 50-50 (run-pass balance). It doesn’t have to be 50-50."