ATLANTA – During their most impressive victory of the season, the Vikings taught a master class in situational football, beating the Atlanta Falcons 14-9 with the mundane rather than the spectacular. They excelled on third down and close to the goal line, smothering the Falcons’ superstars with schemes and play-calling.
The Falcons had scored 95 points in their past three games while converting 27 of 41 third downs. The defending NFC champs were hot and playing at home. Then Zimmer and his staff arrived with a large asbestos blanket.
Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, star quarterback Matt Ryan failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 31 games and Julio Jones produced 229 fewer yards receiving than the previous week. The Falcons failed to produce a touchdown for the first time since 2015 and posted their lowest yardage total since 2013.
Throughout the summer and again during the Vikings’ bye week, Zimmer preached the importance of situational football, particularly third-down conversions and red-zone touchdowns. “That stuck in our membrane,’’ running back Jerick McKinnon said.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden offered the wisest quote ever on coaching: “It’s not what you teach; it’s what you emphasize.’’ Every coach talks about situational football. Zimmer emphasized those teachings.
“If you go back and look at it a year ago, we had penalties in the red zone and third-down conversions we didn’t convert,’’ Zimmer said. “This year we made a huge emphasis on it in the offseason. The first thing these guys said when I went in there was ‘touchdowns in the red zone.’ ”
The Vikings produced two of those as offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur continued to play illusionist, popping receivers open in the most claustrophobic portion of the field.
In the second quarter, he had tight end Kyle Rudolph obstruct a defender, leaving McKinnon alone for an easy touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Rudolph glanced to the right, turned left and found no defenders near him for the winning score. “When we get into those situations, it seems simple, because we’ve already practiced them,’’ McKinnon said.
The Vikings converted six of their 12 third downs. The Falcons converted one of 10. That’s why the Vikings, with just 105 rushing yards, no receiver producing more than 51, a long completion of 22 yards and no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles, beat a good team intent on making a second consecutive Super Bowl run.
During their eight-game winning streak, the Vikings have taken playbook pages from Bill Belichick, who prides himself on having a defense that takes away opponents’ strengths and an offense that picks on opponents’ weaknesses.
Sound simple? Maybe, but many NFL coaches become so prideful in emphasizing their own strengths that they become predictable.
Asked about holding Jones to two catches for 24 yards, Zimmer said: “We know how great a player he is and how talented he is. It’s important that we try to take away some of the opponent’s strengths.’’
Case Keenum outplayed Ryan, completing his last 15 passes to go 25-for-30 for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and proving much more adept to avoiding rushers.
The Falcons went to the Super Bowl last year because of Dan Quinn’s defense and Kyle Shanahan’s offense. New England’s title teams have combined Bill Belichick’s defense with an offense essentially run by Tom Brady. You can’t win big in the NFL without influential expertise on both sides of the ball. The Vikings have that in Zimmer and Shurmur.
“It’s not them, it’s not us, it’s everybody,’’ safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s communicating and being on the same page and doing what the coaches coach you to do.’’
In a season filled with big plays, the biggest victory required the kind of drive that no fantasy football player will ever appreciate. The Vikings took the ball on their own 35 with 4:58 remaining and in six plays produced three first downs before Keenum knelt three times to run out the clock.
Coaches call run-out-the-clock drives “the four-minute drill.’’ The Vikings killed almost five, overachieving until the end.