Mike Zimmer was asked how an offense achieves its desired balance when its inability to run the football is so strongly pronounced.
“It’s been difficult,” the Vikings coach said. “But we have to be patient with it, No. 1.”
Good luck with that, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
The Vikings (1-2-1) take the league’s worst running game and most one-dimensional offense into Lincoln Financial Field for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game rematch with the Eagles (2-2). Philadelphia counters with the NFL’s top-ranked run defense and a late-afternoon kickoff that will allow an already rabid fan base another 3½ hours to lubricate its hostilities.
“It’s important for us to have balance,” Zimmer stressed. “It keeps the defensive line from pinning their ears back all the time. And I think it helps the football team overall. So, we just have to do a better job.”
The Vikings are last in rushing yards per game (63.0), 30th in yards per attempt (3.45) and have 16 fewer first downs rushing (26-10) than their opponents. Of course, it doesn’t help that they called only four runs in a game in which they trailed the Bills 17-0 before running their seventh play.
The Vikings also are the only team in the league without a rushing touchdown or a player with 100 yards rushing for the season. Denver has two 200-yard rushers, while 11 individuals leaguewide have more yards rushing than the Vikings’ team total of 252.
Asked if he has an offensive line that’s physical enough to get the job done, Zimmer said, “Yes. It’s about creating space and then trying to get to the second level.”
Two injuries in particular have thwarted that. Leading rusher Dalvin Cook missed the Bills game, was limited against the Rams and didn’t practice Wednesday. Meanwhile, center Pat Elflein, whose strengths include his agile second-level blocking, missed the first two games and will start for only the second time Sunday.
“These two teams are very similar in that there’s injury or people missing at key spots,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “It’s hard to get some consistency and continuity going, much like our guys when [Darren] Sproles is not there or Jay Ajayi is not there. And Corey [Clement] missed last week.”
Pederson is expecting the Vikings’ running game to have better timing and rhythm this week. But that doesn’t mean it will be any more productive.
The Eagles rank first in run defense (63.8). They’ve held the Falcons (74), Buccaneers (43), Colts (68) and Titans (70) to under 75 yards.
“I think our guys are attentive to [stopping the run],” Pederson said. “I like our defensive line. I like how they’re playing. Just the style. [Defensive coordinator] Jim Schwartz’s style. Coming off the ball like they do.”
Pederson said his defense might be susceptible to big plays down the field, which “I’m sure [DeFilippo] is aware of,” having served as Eagles quarterbacks coach before joining the Vikings this season.
But whether DeFilippo and Cousins have time to strike downfield might depend on whether the Vikings are balanced enough to stay in favorable downs and distances.
Right now, the Vikings are the NFL’s second-most one-dimensional team on first-and-10. In that situation, they’re running the ball only 29.4 percent of the time. Only the Colts (28.2) are more lopsided.
Ten teams run the ball 50 percent of the time or more on first-and-10. Washington leads the way at 60.2 percent. The Patriots, even with Tom Brady, are third at 57.8 percent. The 4-0 Rams are fifth at 51.2 percent.
The Vikings have 73 rushing attempts. Seven have lost yardage. Cook has lost yardage on six of 36 carries.
Meanwhile, Eagles opponents have lost yardage on 13 of 76 carries.
“Anytime you can just line up and run the football, it’s certainly preferred,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “But very few times in the NFL can you just line up and run the ball.”
The Vikings know that better than any team in the league.