Reintegrating Rudolph in the Red Zone Should Be One of Kevin Stefanski's Tasks

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

While it may appear that Kyle Rudolph hasn’t been properly utilized, that’s not entirely true.

The veteran tight end is on pace for 578 yards, the second-best yardage season of his career, and ahead of last year’s 532-yard total.

But his impact has been lessened in the area of the field where he’s proven to be most valuable over eight-year career: the red zone. Reestablishing Rudolph could be one difference-making emphasis for new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as he takes over for John DeFilippo and runs an offense that has scored just 17 points over the last two weeks.

After scoring 20 touchdowns combined in the previous three seasons, Rudolph is stuck at two for the 2018 season, which would tie a career low. Remarkably, he doesn’t have a red zone reception since Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles, and after starting the season 3 for 3, his last seven targets inside the 20-yard line have all fallen incomplete.

For the season, quarterback Kirk Cousins is 3 for 10 when targeting Rudolph in the red zone. Last year with Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, Rudolph made an astounding 14 catches on 16 targets for seven touchdowns and 10 first downs.

“They are paying a lot of attention to him, so that’s been a little bit of it,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “I think guys are well aware of the red zone targets he’s had over his career.”

In the last four seasons Rudolph has received 61 red zone targets, including a whopping 25 in 2016 (he caught 14). In comparison, Stefon Diggs has 42 red zone targets over that same time frame.

Rudolph’s wingspan, strong hands and ability to box out defenders has made him the perfect end zone threat, even though he doesn’t possess burning speed to regularly be a big-play threat between the 20s. This year has been the reverse, though, in that Rudolph has rarely been a factor in scoring situations.

It doesn’t mean the Vikings haven’t tried. On 4th and goal against the Seahawks last Monday, Cousins fired over the middle to Rudolph, who was covered by safety Bradley McDougald. The delivery from Cousins was low and took away Rudolph’s ability to go up for the ball along the back line.

“Could have probably fit it in there to somebody else,” Cousins said after the game, “but where I was looking to go with the ball was well-defended.”

Screenshot via NFL Gamepass

The back line throw is where Rudolph has usually made his mark, like this touchdown against the Cleveland Browns or this one against the Atlanta Falcons a year ago. It requires a precise toss from the quarterback to keep the ball in-bounds, but only make it catchable for the receiver. In games against the Jets, Saints and Bears this year, Cousins has missed Rudolph with throws that flew out the back of the end zone, though the tight end was closely covered on all of them.

Rudolph still has value, however, in that he often uses up a safety that can’t help out on Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen. Those two have combined for 22 catches on 31 targets in the red zone.

“You can still double guys down there, but there’s a lot less room,” said Zimmer, “so typically the back end line and the sidelines kind of help you out on [other receivers], so you can keep a safety over there closer to the tight end usually.”

The Vikings are 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage, meaning there is ample room for improvement, even with Diggs’ and Thielen’s success.

Cooking up new ways to get Rudolph free could be one of the marks of Stefanski’s revised offense.

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