The bye week wasn’t all fun and games for the Minnesota Vikings. Sure, Mike Zimmer admitted that he tried sleeping in a bit more, but the team used the extra time to self scout and identify areas that needed improvement.
Among them: first downs in the red zone, as well as 3rd and 4 through 3rd and 6 situations. The coaching staff adjusted its practice script this week to include drills for both scenarios.
“Little situations like that that we’re going to look to improve,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said, “and if we do that, hopefully it leads to better offensive performances and wins.”
The Vikings are tied for 18th in red zone scoring percentage (55.6 percent) and are 28th on the road (42.9 percent), in part because they’ve been fairly ineffective on first down. Minnesota is averaging 2.25 yards per play in 28 first-down attempts in the red zone, ranking 22nd in the league. The league average is 2.93 yards per play, and the Atlanta Falcons lead the NFL at 5.09.
It’s generally been the run game that has gotten the Vikings off schedule. Minnesota has run it 15 times inside the 20 at 1.3 yards per carry with 12 of those runs going for two yards or less. Only one has gone for more than four yards.
“When you watch teams run the ball in the red zone, it’s usually the back runs somebody over, the back makes somebody miss,” said offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. “There’s gonna be an extra guy there. The backs know that.”
Running back Latavius Murray says it’s important to discern which approach a defense is taking: defending the run or defending the pass.
“You have those teams that bend but don’t break, so they’re trying to drop back and not give up touchdowns, which obviously that allows for some big runs in the run game,” said Murray, “or they’re a team that wants to get up in your face and play the tough hardball game. Then a lot of times you can take those teams over the top and score touchdowns and take shots in the end zone.”
When it comes to 3rd and mid-range (4-6 yards), the Vikings have had a hard time converting. While their yards per play is middle of the pack at 4.97 (tied for 15th with Arizona), the first-down conversion rate is low, coming in at 29th. The Vikings are only converting 34.5 percent of the time — 10 first downs in 29 opportunities — when the league average is 44.7 percent. And nine of their failures have come in opponents’ territory.
Teams pass 88 percent of the time out of those situations, and the Vikings are no different, throwing it in 27 of 29 chances. That requires them to get more creative with their looks since defenses can sell out against the pass.
“I think we want to look at situations where we’re heavy run or heavy pass that opponents can key off of,” said Cousins, “just try to be aware of maybe where we’re giving any tips or any tells to our opponent and then try to get them off that trail.
“We’ve got to make sure that a lot of our plays look the same but are different, or that plays that are the same would look different to the opponent.”
The Green Bay Packers are the league’s best in those situations with pass plays of 21, 25, 29, 43, 48 and 51 yards already logged through nine games. The Vikings only have two pass plays over 20 yards, while Cousins has taken four sacks and has the 28th highest passer rating at 78.5.
“There’s a lot of clues the defense are looking at,” said Cousins. “Coordinators on defense use personnel, they use position on the field, they’re gonna use formations, they’re gonna use motions, they’re gonna use all that pre-snap information to try to get a tell of what’s gonna happen post-snap.”
To this point, defenses have had the Vikings’ number in the situations outlined above. After a week of focused practice, Minnesota can try to counter with some fresh playcalls and better execution.