The Minnesota Vikings are the best third-down team in the NFL. There’s no debating it.
Not only did Minnesota move into first place in third-down offense with Sunday’s 6 for 12 performance, they remarkably held the previous No. 1 squad, the Atlanta Falcons, to 1 for 10.
Outperforming a strong opponent by 40 percent on third downs turned out to be a key factor in the Vikings’ eighth straight win. They did it by trusting their front four and allowing their strong coverage units to shut down Atlanta’s talented receiving corps.
“They changed a lot of things up in the ballgame that we anticipated getting, and so we had to change things up as well,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “That’s part of the chess match that goes on from each play to each series to each half to each quarter.”
On Atlanta’s first drive, the Falcons had a third-and-10 where quarterback Matt Ryan threw a pass for Mohamed Sanu that was knocked away by Mackensie Alexander, but Alexander was pinned with pass interference to extend the drive. Three plays later, the Falcons faced third-and-six, and they converted with a 16-yard pass to tight end Levine Toilolo.
After that, they did not convert again.
Minnesota stopped the next nine third-down attempts, only twice bringing extra rushers, though on most attempts the linebackers showed a double-A gap look.
The Vikings threaten pressure far more than they actually bring pressure, but the possibility of facing six (or sometimes seven) rushers can fluster an offensive line pre-snap.
“It’s really important,” Zimmer said of the linebackers’ job. “A lot of times they’ve got to cover vertical routes and crossing routes and backs out of the backfield, but they’ve done a good job.”
The Falcons faced an average of third and 8.4 yards, which kept them one-dimensional. They only called one designed run play on third down, which came on a third-and-17 to improve their field goal positioning.
“You work on first down, work on second down and make it favorable for us on third down,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Julio Jones had been Atlanta’s top first-down threat all season. One week prior he made five third-down receptions to move the chains against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was fourth in the league with 51 first-down catches on the year.
Minnesota kept him from being targeted once on third down.
The Falcons were largely forced to resort to check-downs, which the Vikings gobbled up behind the line to gain. Alexander also had a nice deflection on a pass to Marvin Hall to stymie a third-and-four in the first half. The Vikings, at times, were the beneficiaries of some good fortune with Sanu winning a slant route and then letting Ryan’s pass go through his fingers. He also had an 11-yard catch on third-and-three reversed after video showed the ball hit the ground.
The Vikings brought both of their blitzes in the second half. The first time they sent Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr, forcing Ryan into a 50/50 pass downfield for Taylor Gabriel on third-and-eight, which fell incomplete. Then, on Atlanta’s final offensive snap of the game, Kendricks rushed up the middle, and Ryan completed a six-yard pass to Gabriel on third-and-10.
Atlanta missed a field-goal attempt and never get the ball back.
The Falcons aren’t the only offense to be victimized. No team has accomplished better than 38 percent success against the Vikings on third downs this season. Eight teams have been held below 30 percent, including each of the last three opponents.
Somehow, they appear to still be improving.
“Get off the field, get the ball to the offense,” said safety Andrew Sendejo. “It’s a pretty standard goal for pretty much every week, probably for every team in the NFL.”