The excitement of a potent Vikings offense seems a distant memory. It was only months ago that the prospect of a hotshot coordinator, a talented quarterback and a healthy, dynamic running back made Minnesota a lock to take a major step offensively. As fate would have it, they moved in the exact opposite direction.
There is plenty of blame to go around, and at virtually every level of the offense. So in no particular order, here are five problems with the Vikings’ offense that sunk their playoff run.
Interior Offensive Line Play
On the edges, the Vikings were a decent pass blocking team. Riley Reiff and rookie Brian O’Neill held their own most of the year, though each had their struggles at points throughout the season. Much of the pressure Kirk Cousins faced this year came from right in front of him, via the protection of Mike Remmers, Tom Compton and Pat Elflein.
While their sacks allowed total puts the Vikings line somewhere in the middle, they were second in all of football this year in hurries allowed, according to STATS. Only the notoriously porous Texans line allowed more hurries this season. As far as Pro Football Focus rates the Vikings interior, Compton and Remmers rated 45th and 48th, respectively, among 79 qualified guards. Elflein, once thought the steadying influence, rated dead last among qualified centers.
And what is worse, this group regressed as the season went along. Compton was, at one point, the Vikings’ highest-rated lineman. Alas, their pressures allowed began stacking up, and Cousins’ play against pressure began suffering severely. Speaking of which…
Cousins Cratering Play Against Pressure
Per Pro Football Focus, Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in football against pressure through the first half of the season. His rating against pressure was 91.5 through week nine. But as the season progressed, Cousins took far fewer shots, settled for more checkdowns and in general struggled to mitigate pressure. From week 10 to 17, his passer rating against pressure dropped to 69.5, 20th in the league.
It seemed that Cousins was frequently afraid of turning the ball over in the latter half of the season. After fumbling eight times in the first nine weeks, he fumbled only once in the final eight. Now normally, that would considered a positive development. However, Cousins’ decrease in fumbles seemed to have more to do with his quick trigger to bail on plays, rather than his sudden care for the ball. Cousins’ fumbling problem was always an issue of pocket awareness, less one of ball security. And even though the fumbles decreased, an increase pocket awareness was clearly not the catalyst for it.
This was especially apparent when compared with two of the Vikings’ previous quarterbacks. Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum were not only more mobile than Cousins, they had a better sense of where to find space to make throws. Cousins more often seemed to struggle to create his own space. He far too often would take the outlet passes the second he was forced off his launch point. Cousins may have more passing talent than either quarterback in 2018, but it is this clear weakness of his that will have fans clamoring for the older, cheaper days of more athletic quarterbacks.
Receiver Talent that Went Only Two-Deep
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are enormous talents. They may very well be the best receiving duo in football, with perhaps just the Steelers’ top-two eclipsing them. But something became clear as the season wore on: opposing teams could put all their focus on those two, and dramatically hamstring the passing game. Laquon Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson provided little production outside of Robinson’s five touchdowns. It may seem like a small gripe, but Robinson’s touchdowns accounted for almost 30 percent of his receptions. In other words, if he was not in the end zone, he was not very useful.
Instead, the Vikings depended on Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook to serve as third and fourth receivers. They did a respectable job; Rudolph had his second-best season statistically and Cook had over 300 receiving yards. But when the Vikings needed their receiver depth to come through against good defenses double-teaming their top guys, they failed to produce. Over the last seven games, Treadwell and Robinson combined for 165 yards on 36 targets. That amounts to just 4.58 yards per target and 23.6 yards per game. That run also included a healthy scratch for Treadwell.
There is a matter of ambiguity to this weakness. For one, it is tough to know how much the gameplan stayed away from Treadwell and Robinson, even as Thielen and Diggs were swarmed by defenses. Plus, as Thielen made clear in week 14, he and Diggs still found ample room against some of the better defenses. But due to a combination of play-calling and Cousins missing them, they did not get the production. That said, the clear focus from teams like the Bears and Patriots was forcing Cousins to work through reads to his second, third and fourth options. This is when Treadwell and Robinson should have had room to shine. Alas, they did not.
Another facet of the Vikings’ receiver situation is how much play-calling hurt them all year, even Thielen and Diggs. The two are elite route runners, yet did not have a ton of open space to make plays after the catch. Of 128 receivers with at least 15 catches, only Diggs finished in the top half in yards after catch. And his total is hardly impressive, as he finished 60th at 4.25 yards after catch per reception. Thielen and Treadwell were neck-and-neck at 89th and 91st, 3.5 and 3.49 yards per, respectively. Robinson was well down the list at 1.53 yards per, third-worst.
So overall, play-calling did the receivers no favors, but the extremely top-heavy nature of the Vikings’ receiving corps allowed opposing teams to send more personnel Diggs’ and Thielen’s way. Expect some looks at early-to-mid-round, athletic receivers in the 2019 draft.
A Mediocre and Oft-Abandoned Running Game
The Vikings ran the ball on just 35.6 percent of plays this year, fourth-least in the NFL. Only the notoriously pass-happy offenses of the Falcons, Packers and Steelers ran less often. But those teams can still boast a more effective running game than the Vikings can, as the Vikings were also bottom-five in percentage of runs going for at least four yards at 41.2 percent. The Cardinals, Giants and Jets were the only teams with worse percentages. And they will each be picking in the top-six in this year’s draft.
Dalvin Cook finished eighth among backs with at least 100 carries in run stuff percentage. 14.3 percent of Cook’s runs were stuffed in 2018. It was that consistency of negative runs that led John DeFilippo to outright abandon the run game moving forward. Sometimes, Cousins lit up opponents and proved DeFilippo right. But far more often, the one-dimensional nature of the offense hamstrung the passing game as opposing defenses sat back.
Only twice did a Vikings player rush for over 100-plus yards, and both times, the Vikings came away with a win. In fact, most NFL teams won this year when they had a 100-yard rusher. 21 of the 30 teams that accomplished that feat at least once this year finished with a record above-.500 in such games. This goes to show that running the ball can have a direct correlation to team success. Too often, the Vikings failed in this area, despite their solid one-two punch at running back.
3rd Down Percentage Took Massive Step Back
The Vikings’ extraordinary third down efficiency from 2017 was unsustainable, even with the theoretical upgrade at quarterback. But the Vikings did not just regress to the mean in third down conversions. Rather, they slipped further towards the basement. The lack of a running game goes hand-in-hand with that. It meant significantly more passing attempts than runs in third-and-short situations. The Vikings ran just 17 times on third-and-short (four yards or fewer) this year, converting 10. That number is tied for fifth-least in the NFL, and the conversion percentage on runs is sixth-least. By contrast, they threw 46 times in such situations, converting 25. That was the most attempts by any team in third-and-short, and the conversion percentage was middle-of-the-road, 13th overall.
Minnesota’s third down efficiency on the whole was 35.8 percent, seventh-worst. Breaking down by distance, they finished 17th in third-and-long (six yards or more), dead last in third-and-medium (four to six yards) and 23rd in third-and-short. Perhaps the most frustrating element of that is the disparity between pass and run play calls in third-and-medium. The Vikings attempted just five runs from that distance, converting once. Their 46 pass plays on third-and-medium tied for seventh-most, yet they were third-to-last in converting through the air on pass plays with only 32.6 percent.
This sub-par third down offense is made even more discouraging when one sees the Vikings efficiency on first down. While not exceptional in that area, they finished 12th in the league in percentage of first down plays gaining at least four yards. Their first down passing offense was particularly efficient. They had the fourth-highest percentage of first down pass plays going for four yards or more. The Vikings’ conversion problem did not come from the start of series, rather, they struggled to finish.
Hopefully, all of this goes to show that there is not one single subject to blame for the Vikings’ lost season. Every area fell short of expectations, with few exceptions. The Vikings have invested fairly heavily into this group, but that does not mean no changes will come. Expect a healthy dose of new linemen, a couple of new receivers, new coaches and perhaps even quarterback competition. At this point, given the disappointments of the group, nothing is set in stone.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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