Vikings struggling to generate room in run game, protect Cousins

Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has spoken several times this season about the importance of achieving balance on offense. It helps, Zimmer said, noting the particular effect it has on keeping the defensive line from having to pin its ears back all the time to get after the other team’s QB.

In a 25-20 loss at Chicago, the Vikings ran the ball 13 times between Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray before the rushing attack was rendered ineffective against the Bears’ defensive front, forcing Minnesota to rely on the 46 passes Kirk Cousins attempted to get them back in the game. Zimmer didn’t harp on the team’s imbalance as the root of Minnesota’s offensive inefficiency.

Instead, from Zimmer’s perspective, there might be too much "volume" within the Vikings' offense, which could be the cause of several shortcomings.

Last week, Zimmer’s view on volume was different. The “800 plays” Matt Nagy has on his call sheet to run at any time makes it difficult for teams to game plan for. The number of different personnel packages, pre-snap shifts, motions, etc. an offense can throw at a defense makes it difficult to know what’s coming.

“You want to add new plays every week and new plays and new plays and new plays,” Zimmer said. “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.”

That last part, one more time, please.

“Can’t protect for it or whatever it is.”

Entering the 12th week of the season, the Vikings have reached a critical juncture as it pertains to the strength of their offensive line. It’s an issue the team can no longer hide from. The Vikings' decision to not prioritize the line in free agency and the draft is one major area leading to deficiencies across the board, from what Cousins is being asked to do in the constant face of pressure to the team’s inability to generate an explosive ground game.

The Vikings have been held under 25 rushing yards twice this season – which led to losses against the Bills and the Bears. According to ESPN Stats and Information, that’s only happened once in the previous 21 seasons combined.

“I think we need to be more efficient in running the football,” Zimmer said. “I do think that there’s times that we need to stick with it a little bit more, but I understand. It gets frustrating, you’re trying to run the ball and you get a minus one, then you tend to go to something where you can get some yards. That leads to third downs usually, and you try it again and you get two yards. It’s like they used to say, could be one, one, one, then 15 [yards]. But you have to keep at it.”

Vikings rushers have been first contacted at or behind the of scrimmage on 43.6 percent of their rushes this season, which is the highest rate in the NFL. Against the Bears they were first hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on seven of their 14 rushes. They averaged a season-low 0.64 yards per rush before contact in that game.

Moreover, Cousins ranks towards the top of all QBs on the amount of times he has had to throw under duress. Against Chicago, the Vikings O-line allowed 17 pressures, which was the most of any team in Week 11, according to Pro Football Focus.

Zimmer, however, did not seem to believe that played a role in one of Cousins’ worst performances of the year.

“I saw that watching the tape, there was a lot of clean pockets in there,” Zimmer said. “A lot of clean pockets. Sometimes we hit things and sometimes we don’t. I’d have to think back on the two interceptions if they were pressured or not. I’m not sure I know what pressure is according to whoever is deciding it.”

According to ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate metric using NFL Next Gen Stats, the Vikings have held their pass blocks through 2.5 seconds on 41.2 percent of dropbacks this season, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

The five offensive linemen in front of Cousins are fighting tooth and nail to do their jobs, but the struggles cannot be brushed aside. What’s happening up front in pass protection and run blocking is part of why the offensive efficiency has been all over the map in 10 games this season.

Getting caught up in what could have been is moot at this point. Austin Corbett, Will Hernandez and James Daniels – all three players who were available to the Vikings with the 30th overall pick – are playing elsewhere. Brian O’Neill, Minnesota’s second-rounder, has performed beyond expectations at right tackle, supplanting Rashod Hill in the starting lineup far sooner than most imagined. Guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers are playing hurt, and Remmers is playing a brand new position this season. Riley Reiff battled against Khalil Mack, but it wasn’t nearly enough from the Pro Bowler to keep the Bears DE from wreaking havoc (Reiff surrendered six total pressures). Pat Elflein notched the lowest run-blocking grade among all Vikings OL at Soldier Field.

For better or for worse, this is the group the Vikings have to work with. Being overmatched is in no way the fault of the five players armed with the task of protecting Cousins, though it’s impossible to deny that what’s happening up front isn’t a direct correlation to a majority of the issues unfolding offensively.

“I think it’s easy to throw blame on one group when there was a lot of things that happened in the course of that ball game,” Zimmer said postgame in Chicago. “Our offensive line is fighting their rear ends off so I’m not going to place blame on them.”