With a vow from the head coach to increase their emphasis on the run and get nastier in the trenches, the Minnesota Vikings are determined to play more physically in 2019.
That physicality may show up in short yardage situations, an area where the Vikings were unproductive and unbalanced a year ago.
“It’s more about getting our pads down and being physical and coming off the ball and not so much backing up all the time in pass protection,” said head coach Mike Zimmer of his summer-long mantra.
Zimmer replaced offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with Kevin Stefanski in Week 15 last year, then added advisor Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison to the staff in the offseason in order to get the Vikings back to where Zimmer likes them: Dictating games with physicality at the line of scrimmage.
DeFilippo was fired after 13 games in 2018, largely because of his reliance on the pass despite persistent reminders from Zimmer that he wanted a run-first approach — or at least better balance. A microcosm of Zimmer’s frustration shows up in short-yardage statistics which show the Vikings threw the ball more often than any team in the NFL when needing 1-3 yards for a first down.
Minnesota’s first-down percentage in those situations (53.8) ranked 18th in the NFL, while their yards per play (5.7) ranked 22nd. These totals aren’t awful but are still below average. They far exceed, however, the Vikings’ efficiency in short-yardage rushing situations, which might explain their over-use of the pass in those scenarios.
When needing 1-3 yards to convert a first down, the Vikings had the fifth-fewest rushing attempts in football (47). They converted just 26 first downs for the second-lowest first-down percentage, ahead of only Oakland. Their yards per attempt (2.02) slotted in at second-worst. They had the third-highest turnover percentage (6.4 percent). All this while their average distance to go (1.4 yards) was the shortest in the NFL.
Perhaps to DeFilippo’s credit, the Vikings recognized a weakness and didn’t belabor these short-yardage rushing attempts. Not like Oakland which attempted almost two more per game with less success.
Not knowing the full breadth of what the Vikings’ playbook contained in 2018, it’s hard to pinpoint whether play-calling, scheme or effort was at issue last year in these myriad short-yardage failures. But it contributed to Minnesota’s poor third-down conversion percentage. Turn the Vikings’ six unsuccessful 3rd and 1s into first downs and their overall conversion rate jumps from 26th in the league to 18th — far more respectable.
“It’s mentality, really, Zimmer said Thursday. “Third and 1s and 4th and 1s are mentality, inside the 5-yard line is mentality. We’ve been preaching that the last couple years.”
Take a look at a few of the plays in question from last season, many of which came down to poor execution.
On this 4th and 1 in DeFilippo’s final game, Rashod Hill was brought in as a sixth offensive lineman to provide some extra girth. Seattle’s Frank Clark shifts to Hill’s inside shoulder before the snap and shoots the gap between Hill and Riley Reiff, wrapping up Latavius Murray behind the line of scrimmage. Later in the game, Minnesota would come up fruitless on a Dalvin Cook carry on 3rd and goal at the Seattle 2-yard line, which preceded a game-altering interception on fourth down. It was the last straw for DeFilippo.
Below we have a 3rd and 1 at Chicago where the right side of the line was culpable. Right tackle Brian O’Neill got carried into the backfield while receiver Laquon Treadwell watched Kyle Fuller jet by. Fuller and Hicks take down Murray behind the line of scrimmage in a game where Chicago dominated the trenches from start to finish.
On this 3rd and 1 against New England, the Vikings tried to get Cook outside the tackles, but Riley Reiff didn’t get the right leverage on Adrian Clayborn, who was lined up wide. Clayborn redirected Cook back into traffic where he got swallowed up for a small loss.
If the Vikings are to improve their work in the trenches, a big chunk of the responsibility goes to the offensive line. Part of Zimmer’s reasoning behind his run-first philosophy is the preference of offensive linemen to push defenders forward instead of constantly dropping back in pass protection.
“The mentality is: 3rd and 2, 3rd and 1, it’s on us up front,” said Dakota Dozier, who is accustomed to Dennison’s coaching after spending a year with him on the New York Jets. “You have to impose your will, and that’s something that as a lineman you’ve got to love. Play call comes in, we do our job, we get this first down.”
While the Vikings plan to enact a wide-zone running scheme, they will still toss in power run calls that ask for players to beat their assignments 1-on-1. That’s where effort takes over and scheme matters less.
“Obviously 3rd and 4th and 1, it’s a whole different type of football,” said fullback C.J. Ham. “Just as a whole offense being more downhill, more physical, getting our pads lower and really just establishing our dominance.”
As the Vikings increase their use of the fullback position under Stefanski and Kubiak’s new system, Ham could be an option to convert in short yardage. So could third-round rookie Alexander Mattison, who weighs the most of any Vikings running back (excluding Ham) at 220 pounds and was brought in as a de facto replacement for Murray. Change-of-pace backs Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah might be useful in spreading out defenses if the Vikings don’t want to telegraph a run play.
In terms of frequency, the teams with the top six short-yardage rushing attempts made the playoffs in 2018 (Saints, Patriots, Ravens, Bears, Cowboys, Rams), though it can be argued they were in a position to run the ball more as a result of holding leads. More importantly, five of the top seven most successful short-yardage rushing teams made the playoffs (Chiefs, Ravens, Cowboys, Seahawks, Saints).
Rushing success in short yardage can be accomplished in different ways. Five of the top 10 teams last year spread the field, using “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) more than the league average 62 percent in third- and fourth-down rushing situations, per Sharp Football. The other five were below league average in “11” and chose to use an additional back or tight end more frequently.
One of Stefanski’s favorite words this summer has been “multiple.” With five backs, four tight ends and five wide receivers on the roster possessing varying skillsets, Stefanski — entering his first Week 1 as an offensive coordinator — hopes to present unpredictable looks.
“I think you’ve got to be well aware of your tendencies, their tendencies and then as a staff you sit together and you put together a plan of attack,” said Stefanski, “and like you said, it can be the run, it can be the pass, it can be multiple personnel groups.”
After a full offseason of preaching toughness, Zimmer will get to see the fruits of his labor Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
“You get your moments where, ‘Alright, our scheme is better than yours, and there’s nothing you can do about it,'” said Dozier, “but there’s always going to be those plays where, ‘I’ve got to be better than you on this play.’ And I just love it.”
Luke Inman contributed to this story.