How the Two Pats have Helped Transform Minnesota's Offense

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

When Pat Shurmur took over for offensive coordinator Norv Turner in Week 9 of the 2016 season, he wasted no time making changes.

The Minnesota Vikings had become stagnant offensively, losing two in a row on the road under Turner in games where the offense failed to score a touchdown until garbage time. The play-calling had become predictable with unsuccessful first-down rushes often putting the Vikings off schedule.

Against Philadelphia in Week 7 last year, the Vikings ran the ball on first down nine of their first 11 attempts in the first half, averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and trailed 11-3 at halftime. A week later against Chicago, Minnesota ran the ball six of their first seven times on first down, amassed just two first downs through five possessions and quickly fell behind 13-0.

In neither game were they able to recover.

After Turner’s unexpected resignation, in came Shurmur, who immediately altered the offensive approach. The Vikings threw the ball 18 times on first down against the Detroit Lions and gained their second-most yards of the season to that point. Minnesota lost that game, however, because of poor special teams and bad execution in the red zone.

That would be the story of Shurmur’s interim spell as the team’s offensive coordinator. His West Coast playcalling, in principle, fit the skillsets of quarterback Sam Bradford and his top receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but without an offensive line that could run block well or protect Bradford on deeper dropbacks, the Vikings were unable to complement their short passing game with vertical deep shots or efficient run plays.

Concocting a new offensive gameplan on the fly was not an option.

The Vikings were stuck with what they had, and that was an injured, limited offense. “Quite frankly, we don’t really get a chance during the season to internalize or think too much about what is going on,” said Shurmur after a 34-6 loss to Indianapolis. “That sort of comes in the off-season when things slow down.”

Though Elflein is merely one cog in a versatile, balanced, eighth-ranked offensive attack, his presence is key in carrying out Shurmur’s plan.

The offseason came and went, the Vikings drafted running back Dalvin Cook in the second round and they went about transforming their offensive line. In addition to big-money tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, the Vikings added rookie Pat Elflein to the mix, drafting the nimble center in the third round out of Ohio State.

While Reiff and Remmers have shored up the edges of the Vikings once-porous offensive line, Elflein has solidified the middle. His snap of the football puts into motion what Shurmur, the other Pat, is hoping to do offensively.

Though Elflein is merely one cog in a versatile, balanced, eighth-ranked offensive attack, his presence is key in carrying out Shurmur’s plan.

A ‘grinder-wrestler’

Elflein has not missed a snap this season. Not one. He is the only Vikings player who can say that.

Minnesota pitted Elflein against Nick Easton in the preseason and eventually opted to entrust the center position to Elflein while Easton replaced Alex Boone as the starting left guard. For an offensive line that was decimated by injuries in 2016, Elflein’s durability has been appreciated.

It’s impossible to deny, however, that the offensive line has been a driving force behind Minnesota’s offense.

Pro Football Focus isn’t fond of Elflein’s performance this season, ranking him 26th among centers. The analytics website, which grades process as much as it does results, seems to take issue with the rookie’s pass-blocking, though they did award him a top-five grade after the Vikings’ win over the Washington Redskins in Week 10.

For what it’s worth, PFF doesn’t like Easton either, grading him 52nd amongst guards.

It’s impossible to deny, however, that the offensive line has been a driving force behind Minnesota’s offense, and Elflein is a key part of that. The Vikings are tied for first in fewest sacks allowed, sixth in rushing, 12th in passing and eighth in points scored. In those same categories last year they ranked 23rd, 32nd, 18th and 23rd, respectively.

The running game’s turnaround has been shocking, particularly after losing star rookie Cook. Minnesota’s attack has been predicated on more zone runs, more shotgun carries and fewer heavy running sets between the 20-yard lines. This has not only given ball-carriers Cook, Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray more room to navigate, but it’s enabled the offensive line to use its athleticism to block on the perimeter.

Elflein’s mobility is one of his finest traits, allowing him to get past the first level on blocks. He’s been so eager at times to get downfield and block that he’s twice been flagged as an ineligible man downfield, including one instance that wiped away a 50-yard gain. Aside from those outliers, his agility has brought a whole new dimension to the line.

“He’s obviously got great quickness getting to the perimeter and getting to the second level,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “He just keeps doing a good job.”

The ground game is averaging 134 yards per game since Cook went down, but amazingly, there is still tremendous room for improvement on a team that has amassed over 100 yards on the ground in six of the last seven games.

Zimmer repeatedly spoke about trying to eliminate negative runs last year. Surprisingly, it’s actually gotten worse in 2017. The Vikings had 45 negative runs a season ago, and they’ve matched that totally exactly through 11 games, on pace for 65. It’s the explosive runs where they’ve dramatically improved. Minnesota had 24 runs for 10 yards or more last year.

Currently, they have 33 and are on pace for 48 — double last year’s total.

The offensive line has also been aided by the mobility of Keenum, who has emerged as the quarterback likeliest to take the Vikings into the postseason, assuming they get there. For two months he’s had the lowest sack percentage in the NFL. That alleviates the burden a bit on the offensive line. They don’t need to block perfectly; just enough to give Keenum a small window.

“he plays like a pro.”

Elflein not only can move in space, but he’s been holding his own physically against bigger nose tackles. As Zimmer said earlier in the season, Elflein’s hard-nosed mentality helps him when he’s battling in the trenches.

“He’s a little bit of a grinder-wrestler kind of guy in there,” said Zimmer, “so he’ll stick with the extra block, kind of get a guy turned a little bit.”

The head coach likes Elflein’s low center of gravity and wide base. Those are the physical measurables that caught the coaching staff’s collective eye. But the intangible has always been Elflein’s intelligence, which enables him to diagnose a defense and relay it to his colleagues. He’s a strong communicator. He’s not necessarily a talker, though. Like the majority of his offensive line comrades, he rarely chooses to speak to the media.

“The only time he acts like a rookie is he doesn’t say very much,” said Zimmer, “but he plays like a pro.”

It helps to be part of an interior trio with three players who possess a center’s mentality. Right guard Joe Berger played center each of the past two seasons. Easton played center at Harvard, and in spot duty last year, before trying out for the job in training camp.

“They do a great job of communicating, not just during the play or before the play on the field,” said Keenum, “but before practice even in the meeting rooms. They do a great job.”

Zimmer complimented Elflein on Wednesday about how well he’s done with the mental side of the game.

So did Keenum.

Playing center is about identifying defenses and relaying messages as much as it is stopping brutish nose tackles. Regardless of what Pro Football Focus says about Elflein’s effort during plays, it can’t grade his work before the snap.

“He’s not playing like a rookie,” said Keenum. “He’s getting us lined up, he’s helping me, he’s helping the offensive line. He’s doing a great job of identifying fronts and pressures, not just pass game protection but run game, as well.”

‘It’s not the plays, it’s the players’

Another immediate change Shurmur made last year was the offensive coordinator’s positioning during games. Turner had called offensive plays from a box above the field. Shurmur went down to the sideline.

There’s certainly no evidence to say that Turner’s vantage point was inferior to Shurmur’s, but it represented something greater: Shurmur had a different view on offense than Turner.

Turner’s star was dimming at age 64, his offenses failing to produce over 23 points per game each year since 2011. Shurmur’s view was more adaptive, more dynamic, demonstrated by the fact that he was able to squeeze a career season out of Bradford despite the team’s limitations in protection, and is now evoking a career year from Keenum, the journeyman.

“We have some very smart players that have a feel for conceptual football, and then you start really teaching it in the offseason and you build a foundation of how you function from cadence to how you line up,” Shurmur said last week. “I’m constantly looking for ways to say what we do in fewer words, so you can execute it quicker. It’s easier for me to say, it’s easier for the players, and then they can go out. If you knock out a layer of learning then the players can get lined up quicker and they actually play faster, and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Playing faster might be Shurmur’s finest addition. Per Football Outsiders, the Vikings run the third-fastest offense during situation-neutral points in the game. This stat excludes plays that could be dictated by the clock or score, such as when a team is forced to hurry late in a half.

“I feel like I’m just working the throttle.”

The Vikings have used tempo as part of scoring drives in their first three games out of the bye, usually after a first-down gain when defenses would prefer to change personnel. According to Pro Football Reference, Keenum converts 9.2 yards per attempt through the air when the Vikings pass out of no-huddle situations.

“I feel like I’m just working the throttle,” said Shurmur. “We feel good about our plan each week. As the flow of the game goes, kind of speed it up, slow it down. Sometimes you have to slow it down to get the groupings in that we were talking about earlier. Then, every once in awhile, if you get the defense reeling, a fast play can help create maybe a big play.”

This Sunday, the two best third-down offenses will take the field in Atlanta. The Falcons are 48.6 percent. The Vikings are 45.1 percent (and 53.9 percent since the bye). For Minnesota, their season total is over 7 percent better than last year, when they were 17th in the league.

The 2016 team struggled in third-and-long situations with Bradford converting just one of every eight times when faced with third-and-10-plus. Keenum this year is converting about 27 percent, one percent away from the success rate of Matthew Stafford.

It’s safe to say the third-down improvement has bolstered the team’s red zone success. The Vikings are 11th league-wide in red zone touchdown percentage, but since the bye, they are first at 83.3 percent — 10 of 12 when inside the 20.

On six of their 10 red-zone scores over the last three weeks, they’ve utilized a two- or three-tight-end set. For instance, both of Murray’s touchdown runs against the Los Angeles came out of the same “13 personnel” formation. As Zimmer said last Friday, however, similar looks are fine if you keep the play-calling unique.

“We’ve done a lot of different things out of the same looks,” he said. “You take the play on the goal line when we were in London and they handed the ball to Jerick [McKinnon] when we were on the goal line. The next week we have a boot off of the exact same look. We’re starting to do a lot of things off of the same look that defenses prepare for that look and they get something else.”

The Vikings have mixed up their looks by spreading the field, too. Jarius Wright’s touchdown against Washington came out of a four-wide-receiver set from the 7-yard line, and Case Keenum’s rushing touchdown against Detroit came on a read-option with three receivers in the formation from the 9-yard line.

All told, 10 offensive players have scored touchdowns for the Vikings this season.

“I tell them all the time, and I really believe this,” said Shurmur. “It’s not the plays, it’s the players, and we’ve got a really good group here. We don’t make injuries a part of our daily conversation. We don’t make excuses for who’s in there, who’s not in there. We don’t let other people do it for us, and we trust every guy on our offensive roster that he’s going to go into the game and help us win the game.”

Time to finish

There are still five games remaining on the schedule — plenty of time for things to go amiss, if you’re a glass-half-empty type. The Oakland Raiders, for instance, were 10-2 after 12 games last year. Then they dropped two of their last four, quarterback Derek Carr got hurt, they lost the division race to Kansas City and exited in the first round of the playoffs.

But hey, the Vikings have already absorbed plenty of adversity and kept the ship afloat. Shurmur watched his quarterback Sam Bradford go down after one game and has managed to generate Super Bowl hype with an offense led by a backup.

Elflein? He’s used to getting ready for big games this time of year. Twice his Ohio State Buckeyes reached the College Football Playoff during Elflein’s collegiate tenure.

“As a young center, he’s not fazed by much,” said Shurmur. “It’s like I told him, he played in front of larger crowds when he was at Ohio State.”

As the calendar flips to December, it’s time for the home stretch. The two Pats, steady so far, will continue to act as the rudders as Minnesota sails closer to the playoffs.

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