Despite losing Dalvin Cook in Week 4 of the 2017 season, Minnesota Vikings’ running game remained a serious threat for opponents with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combining for 1,412 yards and 11 touchdowns. As a team, the Vikings gained nearly 2,000 yards rushing last year.
This season their rushing attack has disappeared. Minnesota ranks 30th in both total yards and yards per attempt.
While the offense has had its moments, the Vikings’ offense overall is not one of the NFL’s elites, ranking 18th in points scored, 13th in yards and 14th in Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Points.” The running game has been largely at fault with the Vikings’ passing attack ranking 10th in Expected Points and the run 30th. Cook has just a 33 percent Success Rate (per Football Outsiders), the league leader is at 62 percent.
So the question is whether the Vikings should make every effort to improve their running game or simply turn away from handing the ball off — even when Cook is healthy.
The Vikings would hardly be the first team in history to succeed while abandoning the run. Last year the Detroit Lions ran just 363 times for a league-worst 1,221 yards and still finished seventh in the NFL in total points. In 2015, the New England Patriots were third worst in total rushing yards and yards per carry and scored the third most points.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talked on Monday about how defenses are impacting rushing throughout the league.
“The thing that I think is the defenses now, there’s so many defense now that are playing single-high,” Zimmer said. “That makes it much more difficult to run the football into usually. These teams that are checking the ball and throwing it. They’re taking a five-yard throw as opposed to a two-yard run. I think that’s just kind of how it is. I do think it’ll get more balanced as the season continues to progress a little bit. I could be wrong but I think it’ll get more balanced.”
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is one of those coaches taking a five-yard throw instead of a two-yard run. The Vikings lead the NFL in yards from throws under 15 yards with 1,269, Cousins is completing 75.8 percent of short throws and averages 5.3 yards per attempt behind LOS and 6.2 on throws that travel fewer than 10 yards.
The short passing game was especially effective on Sunday when DeFilippo used quick throws and screens to slow down Philadelphia’s pass rush. Last week, he broke down his reasoning for going away from the run against Los Angeles.
“Aqib Talib is out, Marcus Peters is on one leg, I like our matchups on the outside more so often than trying to bang our heads up against Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh,” DeFilippo said. “We are going to try to establish that and continue to keep grinding on that. At the same time there is a fine line of doing something just to do something and maybe taking some success away from your team.”
The question is, would completely running away from the run game take away from the offense’s success?
One of the things that fuels Cousins’ success is his execution on play-action plays. This year he has a 124.0 rating with play-action, 100.4 rating on plays without. He is one of the few quarterbacks who consistently performs far above average on play-action.
It would stand to reason that opponents would eventually adapt, but we haven’t seen that in the NFL despite a jump in overall use of play-action league wide. The Vikings have been success with play-action despite the lack of yards on the ground so far, which suggests that they could keep running effective play-action plays without any actual threat to run. In 2016 the Vikings were one of the top play-action teams in the NFL and were the league’s worst rushing team.
One area where a lack of rushing attack could be a problem is on the offensive line. Cousins has faced pressure on 42.5 percent of drop backs, third most in the NFL. While he’s handled the pressure brilliantly so far with a 98.4 rating under duress (per PFF), last year had a 66.3 rating and the highest in the league last year was Tom Brady 96.6.
That would suggest that sustaining a sky-high rating with defenders in Cousins’ face will be difficult. Plus the more times he’s pressured means more opportunities for interceptions and fumbles like the ones that hurt the Vikings against Buffalo and Los Angeles.
“There is no one in this building that wants to run the ball more than I do,” DeFilippo said. “Because it takes a lot of pressure off of me to not have to have the perfect protection, to not have to call the perfect route against the coverage that you deem you think you are going to get. The quarterback in duress at times where if you run the football with efficiency, obviously it is a lot easier on the play caller, it’s easier on some of the players.”
Eliminating risk is especially important late in games when ahead. The Vikings had a key turnover on a passing attempt to Roc Thomas, which turned out to be a lateral. It opened the door for the Eagles to come within one score in the fourth quarter.
Take the Patriots for example: When leading in the fourth quarter since 2016, New England ran 255 times and passed 167 times. And when up by one score, the ratio is 53 runs to 40 passes. Their main weapon was LeGarrette Blount, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry up one score in the fourth.
It’s nice to have a closer. Last year Latavius Murray had 125 carries in the second half and only 91 in the first. That’s likely because the Vikings were routinely leading in the second half. Murray was able to kill clock, averaging 5.3 yards per carry with his team ahead with under four minutes remaining in the game.
When Cook gets healthy, he may be able to make up some of the difference, especially as the Vikings face off with weaker defenses than the Rams and Eagles. But he is also very effective in the screen game and has the capability to line up at receiver, averaging 9.9 yards per reception in his seven career NFL games.
So the answer to whether the Vikings should abandon the run is yes and no. It might help to have a fourth-quarter clock killer and just enough rushing skill to make teams bite on play-action, but they do not need to run very often to be a dangerous offense, especially if Cousins continues to get the ball to his top receivers under pressure.