Contrary to popular sentiment, the running game is still a vital factor in NFL offenses. Sure, teams are throwing the ball more than they ever have been. Fewer running backs are going in the first round of the draft. But a team that cannot run the ball allows defenses to sit back on the passing game fans love so dearly. Balance is key to offensive success, even today.
Take a look at this table from teamrankings.com. Detroit has the highest pass play percentage at over 63 percent. But after that, a truly potent offense does not appear until Kansas City at number 10. In fact, the Chiefs are the only team in the top-10 of both pass percentage and yards per play. Only the Chiefs and the Lions are top-10 in pass percentage and scoring.
The top-three scoring teams in the league, the Eagles, Rams and Saints, rank 26th, 24th and 19th, respectively in pass play percentage. Obviously, they have the luxury of elite running backs to go along with franchise quarterbacks.
The Vikings are one of the better teams in the league at exhibiting said balance. They pass on 54 percent of plays (27th in the league) yet rank 10th in yards per play. This is without having their star rookie running back Dalvin Cook for the majority of the season, as well. And they are making it work by utilizing a “hot hand” philosophy with their running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
At the beginning of most games, Murray will get the majority of the carries. But then throughout the first quarter, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur feels out how Murray and McKinnon are running. From there, he seems to make a decision as to who will be the primary ball-carrier for the rest of the game. For most of the first half of the season, it was McKinnon who shouldered the load both in the run and pass game. But for the last few weeks, McKinnon’s touches have taken a slight dip as Murray’s play improved dramatically. And it has paid off as the Vikings won four straight tough games coming out of the bye. Murray averaged 4.75 yards a carry over that stretch.
But then this past week against Carolina, Shurmur went away from this feeling out strategy. It was clear early on that McKinnon was seeing the field exceptionally well in the first half; he had 46 yards on just seven carries. Murray, on the other hand, was looking more like the Murray of weeks one through six with just four lackluster carries. It looked like a great time to feed McKinnon.
McKinnon finished with same line: seven carries and 46 yards. He had just one touch after halftime, a six-yard reception. Murray, on the other hand, carried five times for nine yards. All told, the Vikings ran five running plays as opposed to 28 passing plays in the second half. Shurmur not only abandoned the running back who was more likely to give him the best chance for balance, he abandoned balance altogether.
It is not as if the Vikings were forced to pass, either. The widest margin of the game was 11 points, which the Panthers achieved on their second drive of the third quarter. in that time, Minnesota had six drives, only two of which resulted in points. Their only second-half touchdown was a 52-yard pass to Adam Thielen that was equal parts offensive execution and defensive miscue.
There are two drives in particular that screamed McKinnon. The first started at the Carolina 30 after a long Marcus Sherels punt return. The next three plays were a negative run by Murray, an incomplete pass and a sack, forcing Kai Forbath to attempt a long field goal, which he missed. The second started, similarly, in Carolina territory, this time at the six. Then, lo and behold, Murray ran for no gain, Case Keenum incomplete and Keenum sacked and Forbath on for the field goal.
Anything, a screen, a toss play, something to get McKinnon out in space where he thrives, could have meant more points. Of course, there are no guarantees it would have worked. But the fact that Shurmur did not even glance McKinnon’s way on six crucial play calls was unlike him.
Yes, the Vikings scored 24 points in this game, right around average for this team. But on a day when Keenum was slippery but somewhat inaccurate, receivers were dropping passes and the line could not stop a runny nose, a little lightning in the running game could have helped immensely.
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