What's behind the struggles of the Vikings' NFL-worst run game

EAGAN, Minn. -- Points on the board and a tally in the win column is most important. But Minnesota Vikings offensive imbalance has John DeFilippo frustrated.

When he took over as offensive coordinator, DeFilippo salivated at the opportunity to build his scheme around what the Vikings did so well in 2017. With Dalvin Cook as the focal point, DeFilippo said this offseason that Minnesota’s offense would go as far in 2018 as the run game will carry it.

The first four games have forced him to shelve that philosophy. Minnesota is last in rushing attempts (73) with the league’s least-productive rushing offense (63 yards per game). After running the ball 32 times in a Week 1 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Vikings have rushed a total of 41 times over their past three games, which resulted in two losses and a tie.

Rushing opportunities have been limited when the Vikings have had to constantly chase the other offense. Injuries to Cook and along the offensive line haven’t helped, either. And then there’s the Buffalo Bills game when Minnesota bailed on the run (six total attempts, which tied an NFL single-game low) after falling into a 17-0 hole after its first six plays.

“There’s no one in this building that wants to run the ball more than I do,” DeFilippo said. “Because it takes a lot of pressure off me to not have to have the perfect protection, to not have to call the perfect route against the coverage you think you’re going to get. The quarterback is in duress at times. Where if you run the football with efficiency, obviously it’s easier on the playcaller and some of the players. But at the same time, there’s a fine line when you say balance.”

Nursing the hamstring injury that sidelined him for Week 3, Cook had 20 yards on 10 carries against the Rams. DeFilippo said the injuries to Rams cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters were matchups he wanted to key in on with his receivers instead of “trying to bang our heads against” defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.

With the state of the Vikings' offensive line play, that strategy appears to be derived from necessity.

According to Pro Football Focus, Minnesota’s offensive line has surrendered 81 pressures through four games, including back-to-back weeks with a league-high 29 pressures allowed. Left guard Tom Compton allowed seven pressures to Donald alone, including two sacks, while every starter gave up at least four total pressures.

It’s early, but those figures are on pace to eclipse the number of pressures given up each season by the average NFL offensive line (160-plus) by 70 or more.

The Vikings are tied for last in the league with seven negative rushing attempts. When running backs get hit behind the line of scrimmage -- no matter how many times the protections are changed -- the run game is bound to suffer.

“It’s always a combination of things,” coach Mike Zimmer said of the negative runs. “The running game is not just the offensive line or the running backs, it’s the tight ends, the fullbacks, and it’s a lot of things. When guys miss blocks, that’s typically what happens.”

Per PFF, the Vikings offensive line created a league-worst 23 rushing yards before contact.

Many issues Minnesota has encountered in the run are directly tied to the play of the offensive line. This problem predates the 2018 season and is no fault of the five starters.

The Vikings failing to draft Joe Berger’s replacement at right guard might have foreshadowed these issues. Mike Remmers, who moved from right tackle to right guard, has faced his fair share of hurdles in adjusting to a position he had never played before. Rashod Hill’s run-blocking struggles at right tackle continue to mount.

Left guard Nick Easton, who had season-ending surgery in August, was a force getting to the second level with his athleticism, along with center Pat Elflein, who just returned from multiple offseason surgeries. Compton, his replacement, was overpowered and outmatched against the Rams. Even a stalwart like left tackle Riley Reiff hasn't been immune to early-season gaffes, many of which likely occurred while battling through a foot injury.

The Vikings rank 24th in run blocking, according to PFF, which has a direct correlation with how well they’re able to run the ball. Cook is averaging 2.7 yards per attempt and has accounted for negative yardage on six of his 36 carries.

The offensive imbalance has hurt the Vikings on early downs. Minnesota is only rushing 29.4 percent of the time on first-and-10, as opposed to the league-leading Redskins, who run it 60 percent of the time on the same down and distance.

Could the offensive line’s up-and-down play be the catalyst for the Vikings running the ball on just 23 percent of their plays, down from 42 percent a year ago when they had the seventh-best rushing attack? Certainly. Issues with protections up front are going to limit what Minnesota is able to do in the run. And while they’re aggressively trying to figure it out, Zimmer said he believes the offensive line is set for now.

But if the issues in the run continue, Minnesota won’t have any other choice but to go back to the root of the problem and try to find a solution.

“We're always looking for ways to get better,” DeFilippo said. “If that means potentially moving some guys around, then we'll give it a shot. I don't see that happening in the near future, but you never know. So we're going to continuously always self-evaluate ourselves and see if we can do things better.”