SANTA CLARA — Mike Zimmer was determined not to have a repeat of the 2018 season. He wanted a tougher football team that could beat up opponents with an aggressive defense. He desired a smashmouth offense that pounded the ball on the ground and knew how to protect a lead. The identity of the group was clear.
As it turned out, having an objective that transparent became a target for defenses equipped to stop it.
“We knew they were going to attack us,” said defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. “We knew they were going to try us early. We had to shut it down early to make it the game we wanted to make it.”
And they did, just as several Vikings opponents had done before. Chicago, Green Bay, even Denver for a half.
A healthy Dalvin Cook was proven to be mortal several times this season as the Vikings’ offense varied from spectacular to efficient to buffering. The secret got out that making the Vikings one-dimensional could send Cousins toppling like a house of cards — figuratively and literally. The quarterback was sacked five times or more in four games this season. The Vikings’ rushing total in those games: 40, 37, 57, 21.
Neuter the run, put more pressure on Cousins. The formula was quickly distilled over the course of the 17 games Cousins played this season. The 49ers clearly studied up on their Stopping the Vikings 101 handbook during the week of preparation as they all too easily sniffed out Minnesota’s plan.
“I think it was [frustrating] just not being able to get into a rhythm,” said left guard Pat Elflein. “That’s what we like to do on offense. We like to run the ball, play action, and we were just never able to get into that. They did a really good job and we didn’t.”
Excluding the glorified preseason contest in Week 17, the final three meaningful Vikings games acted as a microcosm for the feast or famine offense, that failed to perform when overpowered by physical fronts.
Week 16, versus Green Bay: With big defensive tackle Kenny Clark and edge rushers Preston and Za’Darius Smith, the Packers bottled up the Vikings’ backup running backs in a 23-10 win where Minnesota had one of the three worst offensive performances of the NFL season in terms of yards per play.
Game 1 of the playoffs, at New Orleans: The Saints, due to injuries, did not have a balanced defensive line. The Vikings established the run early with over 100 first-half yards, which opened up more explosive plays in the passing game. Minnesota won the time of possession handily and knocked off the Saints in overtime.
Game 2 of the playoffs, at San Francisco: Armed with first-round picks up and down the defensive line, the 49ers put the Vikings on their worst rushing performance of the season. They rushed for under 25 yards for just the third time in a decade. Cousins threw a costly interception and was sacked six times.
The Vikings season ended with a whimper. Cook failed to have a run longer than four yards until the score was 27-10. Cousins day ended with his second-longest pass of the day, a 21-yard bullet to Irv Smith Jr. on fourth down … that was still short of the line to gain. At least they went for it, though. Minnesota previously resorted to punts on fourth-and-long despite trailing by 17.
“It was a combination of having some third downs that were longer after not being productive on first and second down,” said Cousins of the offensive frustration. “and then not converting third downs, so that we weren’t able to stay on the field.”
It’s hard to know which down was worse: first or third. The Vikings averaged 5.5 yards on first downs during the regular season, but through their first 12 first-down attempts of Saturday’s game, they averaged 1.7. Four of their first six drives started with unsuccessful runs by Cook. Once, when the Vikings did try to throw on first down, Cousins was sacked to set up 2nd and 18. Then Minnesota passively ran it twice for three yards.
More than ever, the Vikings needed Cousins to bail out their paltry rushing effort with some big conversions. Minnesota’s third-down to-go average was 3rd and 8.7. (Note: The worst in the league during the regular season was 3rd and 8.0.) Remarkably, the Vikings failed to convert a third down in the final 50 minutes of the game. On their 10 third-down failures, the Vikings gained minus-six yards, got sacked three times and threw an interception.
“I don’t know how many first downs we had in the second half,” said Zimmer, “but I don’t think it was very many.”
Zimmer’s methodology this season was not without merit. Against weaker teams, the Vikings flexed their muscles and sometimes enforced their will. Cook became a star after becoming as much a face of the Vikings’ offense as Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. For a period of time, Cook seemed neck and neck with Christian McCaffery as the league’s preeminent running back.
Yet an offense with Thielen, Diggs and Cook shouldn’t have the blackouts that Minnesota periodically has over the past two years. The Vikings have now tried a pass-happy scheme under John DeFilippo and a run-heavy scheme with Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak. Both tactics showed flashes of brilliance but suffered frustrating setbacks.
Cousins is obviously culpable, in part, as the quarterback of the two systems. While the run dependence the Vikings exhibited in 2019 proved fallible, one would hardly advocate for a return to 2018 after seeing the state of the offensive line when forced to pass block in volume. Plus, the Vikings proudly built a mobile offensive line that is lighter than most, designed to reach the edges and get downfield on screens — not to repel pass rushers 40 times a game.
While the defense may undergo changes, the offense is likely to stay the same. Even the staff may remain unchanged if Stefanski doesn’t land a head coaching job.
“The first thing you do is look yourself in the mirror and figure out what you could’ve done better in the running game and the passing game,” said Thielen.
The Vikings probably can’t financially afford an offensive revamp. They’ll run it back in 2020, but it’ll require some tweaks, another offseason of growth for Cousins and some play-calling adjustments by Stefanski, if he remains coordinator.
That’s not too much to ask, right?