How the Vikings' lack of offensive balance led to victory

MINNEAPOLIS -- The way the Minnesota Vikings composed their 28-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons was hardly the way coach Mike Zimmer imagined, even with an offseason spent toiling over how to center the offense around their rushing attack.

“I did not foresee us throwing the ball 10 times, but I’m happy we did,” Zimmer said.

Minnesota called for a running play in Sunday’s win a whopping 77% of the time (36 of 47 plays, excluding kneel-downs), which was its highest rushing percentage in a game in the past 15 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

It resulted in running back Dalvin Cook notching his third career 100-yard rushing game and the second -- since the Vikings beat Miami last December -- in which he had multiple rushing TDs. Minnesota's three rushing touchdowns were its most in a game in the past five seasons. Aside from Cook’s two, quarterback Kirk Cousins also scored on a QB sneak as he played the role of game manager, attempting a career-low 10 passes but completing eight of those throws for 98 yards, a touchdown and no turnovers.

“Throwing 10 times is really unique,” Cousins said. “Probably haven't had a game with that few attempts since literally Pop Warner. I probably threw 10 times or more in most high school games, too. It was what the game called for, and I have no problem with being conservative. As long as we win the football game, that's all that matters to me, and we found a way to get the win, so the approach was a great approach.”

The last time Minnesota won with a quarterback attempting fewer than 10 throws was a 1977 victory over Green Bay in which quarterback Bob Lee’s final stat line was 5-of-8 passing for 68 yards and a touchdown.

A year after rushing on 33% of plays, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL, a refocused emphasis on the ground game came complete with a healthy Cook, who carved up Atlanta’s defense with his cutback runs. Still, the manner in which Minnesota defeated Atlanta teeters on the extreme. Zimmer has eluded to wanting a run-first mentality, but the approach the Vikings took against the Falcons was imbalanced.

Now, is that a bad thing? Not if that’s what the game calls for and it leads to victory. But to infer this is going to be Minnesota’s identity on offense going forward isn't realistic.

“When we got up 28-0, you didn’t need to throw the football so now we had to play to our strengths, which was the clock, and even though it looked boring at times and you’re just running the football, that’s what we had to do to win the game,” Zimmer said. “Now, if it was 14-7 it wouldn’t have looked like that. Each game is dictated a little bit differently, I really thought it was going to be a fourth-quarter game today because I know how talented they are offensively and defensively. So, it was good to get up there. But we had a lot of things go right for us today.”

All of the Vikings' 28 points came off turnovers, and had they not been handed such ideal field position from their defense and special teams, chances are Cousins might have been forced into more passing situations.

Zimmer wants the Vikings' identity to be based around a stout defense and dominant rushing game, but the success the Vikings had in the latter of those two areas isn’t something that automatically carries over week to week.

Next Sunday, Minnesota faces the Green Bay Packers, who held the Chicago Bears to three points in the season opener. The Bears tried to run early, too, but abandoned that plan when the 10 runs they had in the first quarter failed to generate much output. Chicago ran five more times after that and finished with 46 yards on the ground.

A year after the offense was criticized for being too pass-heavy, did the pendulum swing too far the other direction in Week 1? Yes, but not every defense Minnesota faces is going to allow 4.5 yards per rush.

“Every game calls for something different,” Cousins said. “Don't be surprised if we have to win a game 52-51 this year. Coach Zimmer wouldn't be very happy about that, but every week is different.

“It's very important you understand what kind of game we had to play today to win, and that's what we played. And when you consider through the lens of what was asked of us today, what type of game did we have to play to win, and then you can understand why the numbers and stats are what they are, but the No. 1 stat, the only stat that matters, is a win.”