From a statistical perspective, the Minnesota Vikings had a strange Week 1 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
They were barely required to pass after jumping out to a 21-0 lead by the second quarter and ran on 78% of their plays.
The prevailing sentiment following the victory was that the way the Vikings won will not be sustainable throughout the 2019 season. But the team’s goal this season is to dominate defensively and run effectively with running back Dalvin Cook.
So which statistical elements of the Week 1 victory can be repeated over the rest of the season and what does that tell us about the future and their chances to win the NFC North? Let’s have a look at the numbers…
Of course the Vikings will not be averaging 10 passes per game. They could, however, do a complete 180 degree turn from having a 65/35 percent pass-to-run ratio and emulate some recent teams that have won by largely focusing on the ground game.
In 2018 Seattle Seahawks threw the fewest passes in the NFL over the past five seasons with 427, which works out to an average of 26.7 per game. So rest assured, fantasy owners, Kirk Cousins will get his opportunities to distribute the ball through the air to Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph.
In order to win with that few attempts through the air, other things had to happen for Seattle. They needed to be efficient in both run and pass attempts, avoid turnovers, play strong defense and perform exceptionally well on special teams.
The Seahawks ranked sixth in yards per rush, sixth in yards per pass, No. 1 in turnover percentage, second in punt average and Sebastian Janikowski made 22 of 27 field goals.
Most teams at the bottom in passing attempts were not successful. Seattle was the only team in the bottom five in pass attempts that made the playoffs (Tennessee, Miami, Arizona, Buffalo). Naturally those clubs were not in the ballpark of Seattle’s talent level. The 2019 Vikings are.
It wasn’t the only time The Seahawks also had the fewest passes and lowest turnover percentage in 2014 when they reached the Super Bowl. They ranked No. 1 in yards and points allowed on defense that year.
If the Vikings do indeed have the fewest throws in the NFL this year, it won’t be the first time under Zimmer. In 2015 the Vikings had the fewest number of pass attempts in the NFL. They had the seventh best turnover percentage, seventh best scoring percentage and fifth in points allowed and went 11-5.
Verdict: Winning with a low number of passes is possible under the right circumstances
In order to take the NFC North, the Vikings will need to be great in all other areas — as they were in Week 1.
While Cousins certainly didn’t tire out his throwing arm in Week 1, he was extremely efficient when the ball left his hands. A number of teams had wildly effective days passing, including the Ravens who threw for 14.6 yards per attempt against the lowly Dolphins but the Vikings still came out 10th in the NFL in yards per attempt after Week 1.
Everyone at the top will regress as the season goes along. Patrick Mahomes led the NFL with 8.8 yards per attempt last season and Matt Ryan in 2016 had the highest of the last five years with 9.2 YPA. If the Vikings can be more in the ballpark of Cousins’ career high in 2016 (8.1 YPA) they can be among the more efficient teams in the league. Washington ranked second to only Ryan’s Falcons in team YPA in ’16.
Scheme is essential to passing efficiency. Last year the Vikings’ answer to poor O-line play was to use quick throws. This year they have made no bones about the fact that they are looking for downfield throws off play-action.
Over Gary Kubiak’s 22 years as OC/HC, his offenses have ranked in the top half of the league 15 times in net yards per attempt (adjusted for sacks), 12 times in the top 10 and seven times in the top five. His best ranking (2009) came with Matt Schaub at QB.
Verdict: 9.8 would be the best season ever but getting back into the upper tier of yards per attempt seems not only possible but likely considering the scheme and receivers. If the Vikings gain near eight yards per pass, they won’t need to throw very often to rack up yards and points.
As you might expect from their low throwing numbers, Seattle led the NFL with 160 rushing yards per game last season (quarterback Russell Wilson gained 376 total yards on the ground). Eight teams went over 2,000 total rushing yards.
Usually teams that are ahead the most are the ones who rush the ball in order to kill the clock. Seven of the top 10 teams in total rushing yards in ’18 made the playoffs. So much of the Vikings volume numbers on the ground will be decided by game situations. If they are playing from behind, Cousins will be forced to throw more often. Plus they shouldn’t expect 170 yards per game anyway. The 2014 Seahawks achieved that feat last with 172.6 per game but Wilson had 849 yards rushing by himself.
Where the Vikings can sustain success is in their 4.5 yards per carry, which would have ranked 12th last year.
As far as Cook’s carries go, they currently project to 336 over 16 games. That’s not an outrageous number. Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL last season with 304 and 381 total touches. Cook’s touches project to 368. Only four of the top 10 rushers in attempts made the playoffs last year.
The Vikings can’t be overly concerned with saving Cook or being afraid of injuries. In a win-now situation, they have to give their best player the ball and hope it turns out in their favor.
Verdict: Unless Kirk Cousins gets a lot faster, the Vikings won’t average 172 yards per game. Cook could lead the NFL in touches and the Vikings could clear 2,000 yards total on the ground, especially with a promising back in Alexander Mattison spelling Cook. In order to get to that place, they need to be playing ahead often, which means that — oddly enough — the passing efficiency and defense will play a huge role in the team’s total rushing yards.
The Vikings pass rush was downright dangerous on Sunday against Atlanta. Right off the bat they were in Matt Ryan’s face and as the game progressed and the Falcons were in passing situations the Vikings became even more effective.
Over 16 games 28 pressures equates to 448 total pressures. PFF’s top ranked pass rush team in 2018 (Kansas City) created 363 total pressures. In 2017 the Vikings racked up 304 pressures.
Monster pass rusher Danielle Hunter had 10 pressures in Week 1, which led the NFL and obviously equals 160 over a season. The 2018 leader among edge rushers finished with 78 pressures (Dee Ford). Hunter finished last season tied for seventh among edge rushers with 67.
Anthony Barr had four pressures on nine rushes (44.4% success rate). Last year he was 23 for 103 (22.3%).
Everson Griffen was right on track with 2017, picking up four pressures. His average two years ago was 4.1 per game.
Verdict: They won’t pressure every QB as much as Ryan but Hunter/Griffen/Barr can sustain being very good
The Vikings Week 1 win over Atlanta was a strange one but it wasn’t way off from the way they want to win. It was simply an exaggerated version of what the team could look like if they have a successful season and win the NFC North. Under their current construction and scheme, Cousins needs to be efficient, Cook needs to run like crazy and the D-line needs to create tons of pressure. With the amount of talent the Vikings have up and down the roster, those things are very possible.