EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings spent the 2019 offseason talking about how they planned to “marry” the running and passing games together with an aim to create explosive plays on play-action and by wearing down opposing defenses. But Sunday’s 21-16 loss to the Green Bay Packers may have revealed a tactic that opposing defenses plan to use to handle the Vikings’ strategy: Dare them to win with the run.
On Wednesday Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was asked about Green Bay’s defense often focusing more on defending play-action throws than stopping the run. The Packers consistently rushed up field toward where the quarterback would be on a play-action bootleg rather than covering a potential cutback lane.
Here’s a look at four examples:
“It’s partly why the run was effective because they weren’t challenging the run a lot of times,” Zimmer said. “The outside guys weren’t rushing or they weren’t squeezing down on the runs so the cut back lanes were there. We’ll take the runs all day if they’re going to play pass.”
Taking the runs has been effective largely because Dalvin Cook is averaging a league-best 4.51 per carry after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He rushed for a 75-yard touchdown against the Packers and has carried the Vikings to the second best running game in the NFL in total yards, only behind Baltimore.
The play-action game, however, has suffered. Through two weeks, Kirk Cousins, a historically strong play-action QB, has completed just 7-of-14 passes with play-action for 4.5 yards per attempt with zero touchdowns and one interception. Without play-action he is netting 9.6 yards per attempt.
Of course these are small sample sizes and Cousins’ past history suggests that he will still be a good play-action QB but there is no guarantee that his numbers will sustain if defenses change their approach.
We can see from the numbers below that the Vikings plan to be a run-heavy team, especially on first down, is working and they have a positive win probability added on the ground but their first down passing offense has been largely unsuccessful.
Early-down offensive efficiency through two weeks. Up is good. pic.twitter.com/E3Mc2QWrKg
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@PFF_Eric) September 17, 2019
Overall the Vikings rank 17th in total offensive Expected Points Added per Pro-Football Reference in the first two weeks and 20th in scoring percentage.
In the past Cousins has flourished throwing the ball on first down. Over his career, he averages 8.1 yards per attempt on first down as opposed to 7.1 on third down. Last year they averaged 7.2 yards per pass play on first down, which was tied for 16th in the NFL and ranked 10th in first down percentage (31%). Cousins’ QB rating was eighth on first down throws.
In comparison — even with Cook’s excellence — the Vikings gain 5.8 yards per run and have a 20% first down percentage.
Certainly some of his success on first down throws was tied to play-action. Cousins had a 116.1 rating when using play-action last year. But if opponents are gearing up for play-action at every opportunity, that could change the equation.
Winning on the ground is not impossible as we saw from the Ravens last year but very challenging. Pro-Football Reference estimates using EPA that having the No. 1 rushing game is worth about the same number of points over 16 games as having the 18th best passing game.