Entering their bye week, the Minnesota Vikings had a 1-5 record, and it seemed as if all was lost in the 2020 season. However, after consecutive wins at Green Bay and vs. Detroit, the Vikings’ playoff hopes for 2020 are suddenly alive. A win on Monday night against the Chicago Bears would improve the Vikings’ record to 4-5, and they would be firmly back in the NFC playoff race.
The Vikings have found success the last two weeks in unique fashion. While the rest of the NFL shifts away from running the ball and chooses to pass more often, Minnesota has decided to play old school and let the NFL’s leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, carry the offense.
This formula has become mostly outdated in the NFL, but it hasn’t been completely eradicated. The Tennessee Titans still run their offense through workhorse running back Derrick Henry, who won the NFL’s rushing title in 2019. If the Vikings are going to have success the rest of 2020 and make a playoff run, they will have to replicate Tennessee’s style of play in 2019. You could argue the Vikings have already started copying the Titans since the bye week.
In 2019, the Titans got off to a slow start that included some really bad losses. Tennessee was 2-4 through six games, with double-digit losses against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Denver Broncos, and Mike Vrabel‘s team was quickly written off. However, the Titans made a quarterback switch after the 2-4 start, moving from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill, and immediately won six of their next seven games.
When the Titans got hot in 2019, they shifted to an offensive philosophy that revolved around Henry and using a heavy dose of play-action passing. Tannehill was ultra-efficient from a variety of play-action concepts that created easy throws down the field to breakout receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.
After failing to eclipse four yards per carry in four of the first six games of the season, Henry managed more than four yards per carry in every game the rest of the way. He totaled 896 rushing yards on 139 carries over his last six games of the regular season, which equals 149 yards per game on 6.4 yards per carry.
Tannehill, meanwhile, averaged 9.59 yards per attempt as a result of the play-action concepts Tennessee ran, which was the highest yards per attempt in the NFL among starting quarterbacks in 2019.
So where do the Vikings fit into this? Well, Minnesota’s offensive formula over the last two weeks mirrors what the Titans did in 2019. The Vikings have handed the ball to Cook at a high rate, and he has churned up yards with supreme efficiency. This has created ample opportunities for Cousins in the play-action passing game. The results have been superb both on the ground and through the air for the Vikings.
Cook entered Week 10 as the NFL’s leading rusher after accumulating 163 yards and 206 yards, respectively, on the ground in the last two games. This has helped Cousins thrive in the play-action passing game, eclipsing 11 yards per attempt in each of the last two games.
And this isn’t to mention the similarities between the 2019 Titans and 2020 Vikings defenses. Last year, Tennessee struggled against the pass, ranking 24th in yards allowed and 19th in yards per attempt allowed. However, the Titans excelled on third down, stopping opposing offenses at the No. 8 rate in the league. In 2020, the Vikings are 30th in pass yards allowed, 27th in yards per attempt allowed and sixth in third-down defense.
After a slow start, the 2019 Titans rode the NFL rushing leader and an efficient play-action passing game to a 9-7 record before going on the road in the playoffs to earn two upset victories and a berth in the AFC Championship game.
The Vikings’ 2020 season has been eerily similar to this point. After a slow start, the Vikings have ridden the NFL rushing leader and an efficient play-action passing game to two straight wins to re-open the door for a playoff appearance.
This old-school approach is quickly being ushered out in the NFL, but it still might be the best approach for a few select teams in the NFL. The 2019 Titans were one of them. The 2020 Vikings have a long way to go, but it would appear this approach gives them the best chance.