SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The route through the postseason for a No. 6 seed is treacherous. Entering Saturday, teams in the Minnesota Vikings' position were 5-19 in the divisional round of the postseason since 1990. At no point were the odds ever in Minnesota's favor to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
In a game that would be decided by who ran the ball better and defensive line play, the Vikings lost in both areas.
Instead, the Vikings' offense looked anemic at Levi's Stadium, unable to drum up a repeat of the performance it had in the wild-card round. Minnesota finished with 147 yards total offense including 21 on the ground. Running back Dalvin Cook, who had averaged 81.1 yards on the ground per game this season, was held to 18.
“We were just not really able to get in a rhythm, so they were able to sit back and do what they do," Cook said. "We just never got a rhythm and they were just able to fly around and make plays.”
As the Vikings' season ends in the second round of the playoffs, the focus shifts to the changes that could soon take place for the offensive coaching staff, the offensive line and where the entire unit can improve most ahead of the 2020 season.
What's next for Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski: The Vikings will know if they need to find an offensive coordinator when the Cleveland Browns announce their next coach. Stefanski interviewed for the opening last Thursday, his second straight year as a finalist for the job, and could be moving on from Minnesota after 14 seasons. The system the Vikings installed this season is likely the offense they will want to keep moving forward considering the success it had in 2019 (eighth in scoring, 10th in yards per play, 16th in yards per game). The current staff is one place to look for Stefanski's replacement if he leaves.
Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme is the right fit for this offensive line, the run game and quarterback Kirk Cousins. Assuming the assistant head coach sticks around next season, his son Klint, the Vikings quarterbacks coach, could be the ideal replacement for Stefanski.
O-line help needed: The offensive line has been an ongoing issue in Minnesota for the past few seasons. The team dedicated significant draft capital to improving the unit in 2019, picking center Garrett Bradbury No. 18 overall and spending a fourth-round pick on guard Dru Samia, who barely saw any playing time. The Vikings also spent a considerable amount in free agency to bring in Josh Kline at right guard. At times, the offensive line looked better (in big part due to the scheme change), but the interior remains a weakness, particularly at center and left guard.
Cousins was pressured on 46% of his dropbacks Saturday (16-of-35), the second highest pressure rate of his career, per ESPN Stats & Information. He also faced a four-man pass rush on 29 of his 35 dropbacks (83%), and netted only 61 yards on those plays.
After some questions were raised about Riley Reiff's $10.9 million salary-cap hit next season and whether the Vikings should pay that much for their left tackle or move on, it seems likely he'll be back in 2020 given how well he played down the stretch. Right tackle Brian O'Neill was arguably the team's best offensive lineman this season, so the Vikings are set at both tackle spots.
The focus for Minnesota is on improving the interior -- yet again.
Lessons learned: Minnesota generated seven first downs in the divisional round. Seven. And none of them were earned by rushing. Entering the fourth quarter, the team had 90 yards of offense in large part because it could do nothing to establish the run. Some of that can be pinned on conservative playcalling and the struggles Cook had trying to force runs to the outside against a front seven predicated off speed.
It was the same story against teams such as the Chiefs, Seahawks and Packers this season. When the Vikings, a run-first offense, cannot establish a ground game or are without Cook, the offense falters and cannot recover. It's easy to see why that happened again Saturday after the Vikings totaled 21 rushing yards.
Minnesota averaged 2.6 yards per play on first down. Those early down struggles helped the 49ers' pass rush tee off on Cousins, and the lack of deep shots down field were noticeable.
"We had some called and we didn't throw them," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "We threw the one to Diggs. We had a couple of others over the course of the game. For whatever reason, they didn't get done."
Cousins will likely get an extension this offseason. By winning his first playoff game in New Orleans, the quarterback justified the Vikings keeping him around beyond the 2020 season. But the Vikings need to consider giving an extension to Cook, as well. This offense will go as far as its run game will carry it, and he's critical to the Vikings' success.