What’s the Matter With the Vikings’ Running Game?

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

If the offensive line’s incessant struggles are Concern A, then the Minnesota Vikings’ lackluster rushing attack is Concern B.

In fact, the two are closely linked.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner was asked why the team was able to run the ball decently in 2014 without Adrian Peterson, while this year they’ve been the league’s worst rushing team in yards per carry. He quickly pointed to an offensive line that looks entirely different than anybody expected heading into the year. “We’ve had a lot of changes up front,” said Turner, referencing the many injuries that have struck the Vikings’ line. “A big part of being successful is the offensive line and having continuity running the ball.”

Turner is correct to place some responsibility on the offensive line, but there are also other variables. While it’s easy to try and juxtapose 2014 with 2016 since the common denominator is Peterson’s absence, a greater question is why 2016 is so drastically different than 2015 – just one year ago. Minnesota was fourth in overall yards and tied for third in yards per attempt, and with the fourth-highest number of attempts in football, that led to great ground success that earned Peterson his third rushing crown.

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen
Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

Even though Peterson is a generationally good running back, there shouldn’t be such a dramatic drop off to Jerick McKinnon and the occasional dose of Matt Asiata. In today’s NFL, teams generate quality rushing seasons all the time with anonymous running backs. Buffalo led the league in rushing yards last season, and they didn’t do it all with LeSean McCoy. They also got 784 yards – not to mention 5.6 and 5.7 yards per carry, respectively — from the platoon of Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee. The Bills also had a quarterback who could run.

Kansas City used Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West when Jamaal Charles went down, finishing sixth overall and tied for third (with Minnesota) in yards per carry. Dallas was a mess last year and had immobile quarterbacks who didn’t inflate its run game numbers, yet the Cowboys still finished ninth overall and fifth in yards per carry with the once-heralded Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle and Robert Turbin. Cleveland is, well, Cleveland, but Isaiah Crowell is currently leading a ground attack that has the second-best yards per carry in football.

The idea that Peterson’s absence is killing the run game is fraudulent. Plus, the future Hall of Famer was averaging fewer than two yards per carry at the time of his injury. Turner is mostly correct that something is amiss with the offensive line. A group that was supposed to contain Matt Kalil, John Sullivan, Mike Harris, Andre Smith and Phil Loadholt as of three months ago now features the likes of T.J. Clemmings, Jeremiah Sirles, Zac Kerin and Jake Long, amongst other replacement-level youngsters.

The idea that Peterson’s absence is killing the run game is fraudulent.

But the offensive line isn’t the only area lacking continuity. The Vikings also have a different offensive line coach than they did last year (Tony Sparano replacing Jeff Davidson) and a new running backs coach (Kevin Stefanski replacing Kirby Wilson). They have a new quarterback. They have different wide receivers getting greater reps doing the blocking downfield. There are many factors.

The team has also adopted more shotgun formations, even in the game and a half where Peterson, notorious for his disdain for the shotgun, played. This year they are running the shotgun 56 percent of the time, as opposed to 44 percent last year. To be fair, however, the Vikings have been miserable running the football from under center this season at 2.2 yards per carry, while out of the shotgun they’ve merely been below average with 3.7 yards per carry.

“We’ve got guys that are very comfortable running the ball out of the shotgun, and we had success running the ball out of the shotgun the last couple games,” said Turner. “Some of it depends on who you’re playing and what you’re trying to get done.”

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

Bradford spoke of desiring greater balance on Thursday, alluding to the number of the times the Vikings had to throw the football in their loss to Philadelphia and how a rejuvenated run game would help. “I think we’re best when we’re balanced,” he said. “You look at the game on Sunday, and we had to throw the ball 41 times. Usually, when you’re having to throw the ball 40, 50 times, things aren’t going well on offense. So, for us to stay balanced, we’ve got to come out, play well early in the game, get a lead, and then we can maintain that balance.”

Zimmer actually seemed encouraged that the run game was taking strides. Against New York and Houston in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively, Minnesota had early ground success that contributed to scoring drives, but the success was short-lived, perhaps because the Vikings grew more conservative with large leads. The head coach blames negative plays and a dearth of long runs for the team’s poor numbers, but he believes he sees progress. “The run blocking actually has kind of flipped,” Zimmer said. “Beginning of the preseason, the run blocking was not very good, I think, because of some of the new things we’ve been doing, so now it’s flipped a little bit.”

While it may be in the process of flipping, the general feeling is that the ground portion of Minnesota’s offense has flopped. The offensive line is probably the biggest culprit in Minnesota’s woes, but the mediocrity is compounded by a lack of continuity in various other places. The position coaches are different, the quarterback is different, the formations are different, and yes, the running back is different.

With all of this considered, it shouldn’t be a surprise Minnesota’s rushing attack is stuck on the ground floor.

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