First Down Could Be a Spot For Vikings to Adjust Playcalling

Photo Credit: Greg M. Cooper (USA Today Sports)

There is an ongoing debate right now about what constitutes balance in the Minnesota Vikings offense.

As the offense has stuttered in a handful of big games, head coach Mike Zimmer has called for less offensive volume and more running plays, while offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has been put under the microscope.

The 44-13 pass/run split against the New England Patriots gave Zimmer plenty of arsenal to request more stability, particularly when those 13 running plays averaged 7.3 yards a pop.

It would be naive, however, to assume that balance means 50/50 playcalling when the score, down and distance all play a part in the decision-making, as quarterback Kirk Cousins has pointed out.

“A lot of times in games where we’re ahead or tied, you’re getting a dozen more rushing attempts in those last five minutes,” said Cousins, “because of the situation the game dictates and you just want to pound the rock, especially if you have the lead.”

One area where the Vikings could realistically find more evenness would be first down, where they are towards the top of the league in first-down passing attempts, even though the league average is virtually 50/50 (50.7 percent pass, 49.3 percent run, to be exact).

The Vikings have faced 353 first-down decisions. On two of them they kicked a field goal, so let’s reduce it to 351. On 209 of those plays they passed, a 59.5 percent rate that is fourth highest in the league and only trails Atlanta, Indianapolis and Green Bay.

And it’s not as if teams are only passing on first down if they are typically trailing. Among the top 10 teams in first-down passes, six have .500 or better records. Among the bottom 10, five have .500 or worse records. There are two very different philosophies on how to approach first down, which acts as the launching point for every series, and the Vikings are clearly at one end of the spectrum.

Offensive line play certainly factors into it. The Vikings were rushing the football below 4.0 yards per carry in each of the first five games and in nine out of 12 games this season. Inversely, the passing game has often been more successful with Cousins’ finishing over 6.0 yards per attempt in eight of 12 games.

Against the Patriots, though, the Vikings carried the ball more explosively than they had all season as Dalvin Cook reached 84 yards on just nine touts. Cousins posted his lowest YPA as the Vikings quarterback at 4.6, yet they passed it 20 out of 27 times on first down.

There were two plays that stood out where the Vikings could have — and maybe should have — kept in on the ground against New England at key points in the second half.

There are two very different philosophies on how to approach first down … and the Vikings are clearly at one end of the spectrum.

No. 1: With the score 10-7 late in the third quarter, Cook has just ripped off an 18-yard run. His previous run of the drive had also gone for 13 yards, but it was wiped out due to Tom Compton’s holding call.

The Vikings faced a 1st and 10 on New England’s 22-yard line as rain began to sprinkle down at Gillette Stadium. Instead of testing the Patriots again with a run play, Cousins went for the home run pass to Adam Thielen in the corner of the end zone that fell incomplete despite Thielen’s request for a pass interference call.

“Adam was one-on-one, so I wanted to give him an opportunity there and get a chance to go over the top a little bit,” Cousins said after the game.

Following a two-yard pass to Latavius Murray and another deep incompletion to Aldrick Robinson, the Vikings settled for a field goal when they could have taken their first lead.

No. 2: After the Patriots scored a quick touchdown to reclaim a 17-10 lead, the Vikings got the ball back at their own 25. On 1st and 10, Cousins ran play action with Latavius Murray and fired deep down the left sideline for Robinson when it appeared like Stefon Diggs would have been open over the middle.

“We did take a shot over the free safety’s head, but I just didn’t put it on the right side of the field where Diggsy was,” said Cousins.

After a run for five yards and a third-down sack for minus-10, the Vikings punted back to the Patriots, who scored in six plays to take a 14-point lead.

Said Zimmer on that sequence, “I think it was 17-10 at that time, right? Yes, we might have panicked a little bit.”

If either of the plays above had connected, there would likely be little scrutiny. In retrospect, the two lower-percentage downfield shots put the Vikings behind schedule on two critical series when they’d been running the ball successfully.

Zimmer has been most vocal after the last two losses, both coming in difficult road environments. In Chicago, it was below freezing; in New England, it was soggy. Combined, the Vikings threw it 76.3 percent of the time on first down when conditions weren’t ideal for the passing game.

End-game situations aside, that’s still a large discrepancy in games that were never more than two possessions away.

Monday in Seattle, where the forecast calls for rain and temperatures in the 40s, the Vikings will again attempt to find balance, if they can figure out what it looks like.

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