For Vikings to Succeed on Third Down, They'll Have to Do Better on Second Down

Photo credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

Faced with a third down on their opening drive in each of the first two games, the Vikings rose to the occasion. Against the Packers, Dalvin Cook took a 3rd and goal at the 1-yard line behind a bulldozing C.J. Ham to score the season’s first touchdown. The following week, Kirk Cousins slung a difficult pass on 3rd and 5 to Adam Thielen, who made an acrobatic catch on the sideline in front of an excited Mike Zimmer.

Those early successes have been the exception, not the norm, in Minnesota’s first two games — both lopsided losses in which opposing offenses have run a combined 45 more plays than the Vikings. Minnesota’s inability to stay on the field has been a major culprit: They have gone just 5 of 15 (33%) on third down, the fourth-worst mark in the league.

So what’s going on?

“Us staying in rhythm, getting our snaps, giving ourselves a chance to stay on the field for 70-75 plays instead of 50 football plays I think is going to make us a much better offensive football team,” said offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. “That’s a point of emphasis and to do that, you’ve just got to play better. I’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to do a better job.”

As usual, there’s more to the problem than simply saying the Vikings need to execute better on third downs. That much is obvious: The Vikings have yet to convert a third down in the second or third quarter of a game this year. But it’s not the complete story.

To start with, the sample size is small because the Vikings have attempted the fewest third downs in the league. For that matter, they’ve also attempted the fewest second downs. A flimsy defense through two weeks has allowed opponents to string together long drives, while the they have been ineffective and turnover prone. So with only 15 third down attempts to go on, the averages are rather extreme.

Minnesota is averaging a league-worst to-go distance of 3rd and 9.4 (last year’s league-worst figure was 8.0). Against the Colts, they averaged 3rd and 11 as they went 2 of 9 for the game. For a 50-minute stretch from early in the first quarter to midway through the fourth, they didn’t convert a third down at all.

There are numerous reasons behind the third down failures through two weeks:

  • Pass protection — Cousins was sacked by Za’Darius Smith on a 3rd and 8 against the Packers and brought down for a safety on 3rd and 7 against the Colts, though on the latter example Cousins needed to get rid of the ball.
  • Playing to punt — On at least four occasions the Vikings have executed plays with little chance of getting the first down. They’ve run the ball twice on 3rd and long from deep in their own territory and thrown underneath balls on 3rd and 16 and 3rd and 27, respectively, that had almost zero chance of converting.
  • Poor accuracy — Cousins threw the ball out of the back of the end zone on a 3rd and goal at Indianapolis from the 3-yard line. He tossed an interception into double coverage on 3rd and 10 in the second quarter and later overthrew Thielen downfield on a 3rd and 7.

Such is life when you’re averaging 3rd and 9.4. Deep drops against nickel defenses with a limited playbook.

Well, thanks for reminding me,” said Kubiak when a reporter cited the stat, “because that’s what I told the players as well. We’ve been in some tough situations, and it’s hard in this league. I think y’all know the percentages, once you get past eight yards on third down in this league, they get pretty tough.”

The next step is figuring out why the conversion attempts have been so unmanageable, so we follow the trail backward and look at second down.

Amazingly, the Vikings have some of the most favorable numbers before the ball is snapped on second down. Their average to-go distance of 2nd and 6.8 ranks third-best in football, which indicates a high number of successful first down plays. Minnesota has also been great on second and short (1-3 yards), converting eight out of 10 times, which means the Vikings haven’t been faced with many 3rd and shorts.

It’s the 2nd and mediums/longs that have been the Vikings’ kryptonite. On those plays the Vikings are gaining just 2.5 yards on average, second worst in football. They’ve converted just four out of 22 first downs with three interceptions and three sacks, one of which resulted in a safety.

“We talk about that in the offseason and talk about it each week that you have to be efficient on first and second down in this league,” said Thielen. “Teams can kind of play the sticks and they can get after the passer when you have those third and long situations. It makes it really difficult to convert. … When you get third and shorts in this league, you kind of have the whole playbook at your disposal.”

Several of the Vikings’ most disastrous third downs have been set up by an inauspicious second down play. Cousins’ safety against the Colts was preceded two plays earlier by a first down run by Cook that could have been coupled with a late hit, but both were offset by a holding call. Cousins’ interception on 3rd and 10 against the Colts was immediately preceded by an equally interceptable pass to Irv Smith Jr. that was knocked down near the sideline.

Conclusion: If the Vikings want to improve their third-down results, they’ll have to improve their second down results first.

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Photo credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

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