How Can Kevin O'Connell Fix Minnesota's Red-Zone Offense?

Photo Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Mike Zimmer got fired, and we thought the days of conservative offenses and settling for field goals were behind us?

Well, through four games, it seems that assumption was a bit naive.

The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive production has been hot and cold, and they’re clearly still trying to find their rhythm. That’s especially true in the red zone.

Through the first four games, the Vikings are in the bottom third of the NFL in red-zone touchdown-scoring percentages with a fairly abysmal 46%. In London, Minnesota only converted two out of five trips to the red zone into touchdowns against the New Orleans Saints. It feels like a perfect encapsulation of the offense so far. Leaving those points on the field is a killer for a team with a struggling defense.

So, what’s to blame? Is it play-calling, personnel, or execution?

It has not been a hot start to the year for Dalvin Cook. The way Minnesota has called plays, you’d think the Vikings were putting their former workhorse out to pasture. We’ve yet to see any explosive runs of 20-plus yards, and Cook has only one touchdown on the year. There’s already some rumbling about whether he has entered the period of decline that seems inevitable for all running backs.

That’s a bit too hot take-y for my liking.

The running game hasn’t been very consistent, but it’s also been critically neglected. The Vikings only run the ball 35% of the time, which is 28th in the league. For this running game to find a rhythm, it will require more patience from the young head coach.

He cannot neglect the running game in red-zone situations. Running the football on the cusp of the end zone is about toughness and asserting a mentality. But so far, “tough” and “assertive” are not words to describe the 2022 Vikings.

The irony of calling for more running after years of screaming for high-flying passing under Mike Zimmer is not lost on me. I’m not suggesting the Vikings should mimic the Chicago Bears and be afraid to throw the football. But balance is essential for an offense, particularly a Kirk Cousins-led offense, to succeed.

Let’s not confuse more passing with aggressiveness because it seems like the opposite in this case. It may sound counterintuitive, but I’d argue that it shows confidence and determination to pound the rock in the red zone. O’Connell is clearly more secure dialing up the passing game, but it’s to the detriment of his QB and receivers when they’re working with limited real estate. Have faith that your offensive line and star running back can get it done, and then set up your passing game for more balanced opportunities when you can keep defenders guessing.

But it doesn’t all fall on O’Connell’s play-calling or run/pass splits. The execution when the passing touchdown is available needs to be better.

Here we have a High/Low read by Cousins, and he’s got the ideal scenario playing out for him. Justin Jefferson is open by roughly four yards when Cousins lets this ball go. While it may have required an accurate ball, that’s absolutely a throw Kirk is capable of making.

But after being rattled around by Saints defenders all game, Cousins goes for the safer throw underneath to Adam Thielen, which is immediately blown up by the defender in great position.

Cousins is still finding his rhythm in this offense as well. He’s very beholden to the play progression, taking the first read in the progression to come open over the potential big play later in the sequence. That kind of improvisation will come with system mastery.

Ultimately, for all the lucky penalties and double doinks that Minnesota required to win in London, if the Vikings were simply league-average and converted only one more of those opportunities into a touchdown, we aren’t sweating out Wil Lutz in the final seconds.

There’s a lot to improve on this football team, but red-zone execution seems to be the quickest way to make this team much better. And Minnesota has a big opportunity to get right this upcoming week against Chicago.

The Bears’ defense is solid in the red zone, but it’s certainly a drop-off from the Saints, who are top-three in that regard. And, considering the offenses Chicago has had to contend with so far — the San Francisco 49ers in a monsoon and the Houston Texans in any weather — their defensive numbers are likely inflated. They’re coming off a disappointing showing against an inefficient New York Giants offense, and the Vikings get them at home.

As this team continues to make incremental steps forward, this is a prime opportunity to gain confidence and consistency. There’s a lot to clean up, but a lot of potential as well.

If the Vikings can play well against a division rival, show some toughness, and execute better in the key moments, this could be a lopsided game. And after the heart palpitations that all of Minnesota endured this past Sunday, that would be more than welcome.

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