For a unit that’s long been identified for a strong running team, with a head coach who encourages physical, smashmouth football, the Minnesota Vikings’ inability to gain one yard in critical situations has been maddening.
Over the last four games – all losses — the Vikings have been bamboozled in short yardage.
The Vikings looked at a 1st and goal from the 2-yard line early in the first quarter. Matt Asiata gained one yard but failed to score. Then Rhett Ellison committed a false start penalty to back the Vikings up to the 6-yard line. Sam Bradford proceeded to throw a crippling interception.
Early in the fourth quarter, Zach Line and Matt Asiata were stuffed on successive third and fourth down plays at the Eagles’ 6-yard line, forcing a turnover on downs with Minnesota trailing 18-3. Obviously they never recovered.
Late in the first half, trailing 13-0, Minnesota failed three straight times from the Bears’ 3-yard line – twice on Matt Asiata runs and, on third down, a sack of Bradford. The Vikings settled for a field goal and never got within one possession.
Trailing 13-9 late in the game, the Vikings missed on a 3rd and 2 and a 4th and 1 to turn the ball over on downs inside the Lions’ 10-yard line. Jerick McKinnon was stopped just shy of the line to gain on third down, but Asiata was smothered on the fourth down play to give Detroit the ball. Minnesota wound up losing in overtime.
The Vikings dodged bullets twice in the first half when they failed on two first downs and two second downs inside the 5-yard line, only to score on third down. They were burned in the second half, though, when a pair of Asiata misses on 3rd and 1 led to two Vikings punts and, on each occasion, subsequent Redskins field goals. “We went with big people, we went with small people, and we didn’t get either one,” said Kyle Rudolph after the game.
The bottom line isn’t pretty. When rushing the football with between one and three yards to go, the Vikings are gaining 1.7 yards per carry on 47 attempts, and they are converting first downs on barely over half of those runs (24).
Third and short is even more egregious. On 16 attempts – with an average of 3rd and 1.79, the Vikings are averaging just 1.2 yards per carry for nine first downs.
Mike Zimmer even brought his own stat with him to Monday’s press conference. “I went back in these last four ballgames, and offensively we’re five out of 13 in 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1, and defensively we’re 0 for 4, so consequently we have not been able to get off the field defensively in some of these situations, and offensively we haven’t been able to sustain drives.
“You talk about eight 3rd and 1s or something like that on offense, that’s a lot of possessions there that you lose throughout the course of a game.”
The Vikings’ issues can be traced to a combination of weak blocking and defenses outwitting the Vikings’ attempts at creativity.
On one of the plays in the Washington game, Jake Long was a big culprit as he was beaten to the inside by Ricky Jean Francois while Josh Norman didn’t get blocked shooting up from the secondary.
On the other 3rd and 1 against the Redskins, the Vikings tried spreading the field more with three wide receivers, which turned out to be the wrong call on this run play. The Redskins put seven in the box against the Vikings’ six blockers, and it appears like Berger was late to pick up an uncontested Will Compton. This is simply a case of one team having more players than another and using that manpower advantage to get a free runner.
While Asiata is becoming the scapegoat for the Vikings problems, it’s not as if the calls and formations are completely rote. Against Detroit on the 4th and inches play, Cordarrelle Patterson sprinted from right to left as a diversion. It seems like the idea here was clearly to open up the left edge – just look at where the line pushes — but Josh Bynes doesn’t bite and forces Asiata back to the inside.
Running in these situations has been, in short, disastrous. Interestingly enough, the Vikings have attempted 19 passes in these third and short situations, completing 15 of them for 15 first downs and a 129.2 quarterback rating. Most notably, it worked well against the Lions in Week 9 when Bradford play-actioned and found Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone. “If we have to throw it every down, we’ll throw it every down,” Zimmer said Sunday.
Minnesota’s offense has been productive the last two weeks, generating over 330 yards each game. But, as Zimmer pointed out Monday, whatever small victories have been accomplished moving the ball have been offset by numerous empty trips on short yardage plays. “Honestly, the offensive line protected the quarterback pretty well yesterday for the most part. He had a clean pocket a lot of times. The quarterback played outstanding, in my opinion. He made a lot of great throws.
“But,” Zimmer said, “we struggled on 3rd and 1.”