The genesis of the Vikings’ 2019 offense might have come on a cool night at Soldier Field last November, when the taste of their offensive mixture had become so sour to coach Mike Zimmer that he couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer.
The Vikings entered Soldier Field last Nov. 18 for a Sunday night game intent on reasserting both their bid for a second straight NFC North title and their status as the division’s stoutest defense. They left without either one, turning the ball over three times in a 25-20 defeat in which they attempted just 14 runs for 22 yards. The following day, Zimmer went public with his calls for greater offensive balance (which he’d voiced in team meetings for weeks), saying the Vikings needed to stick with the run longer and worry less about creative play design. Three weeks later, after the Vikings narrowly avoided a shutout in Seattle, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired.
Three games into the 2019 season — two of which didn’t require Kirk Cousins to throw a fourth-quarter pass at home — the Vikings’ new offensive recipe likely hasn’t reached its full expression. They’ve run the ball on 103 of their 168 plays, a 61.3% clip that’s so out of step with the modern NFL it’s probably not even worth considering. No NFL team has run it more than 55% of the time since the 2012 Seahawks, and the Vikings haven’t run it that much since their second Super Bowl team under Bud Grant in 1973.
Even Zimmer has leavened the narrative about the Vikings’ run-heavy offense with some perspective: “In those two games where we got up, there’s no need to throw the football when we’re up by three touchdowns … they’re not always going to be like that. We want to be balanced.”
But as they face the NFL’s top 2018 run defense Sunday at Soldier Field, the Vikings have found a formula they say works. And even though NFL teams have never run the ball less frequently than they do now, there does appear to be something of a sweet spot, in terms of run/pass balance, for contenders.
According to a Star Tribune analysis of Pro Football Reference data, 11 of 18 teams that played in a Super Bowl during this decade have run the ball between 40 and 44% of the time. The 2015 Broncos — coached by current Vikings assistant head coach Gary Kubiak — are the only team to reach the Super Bowl in this decade while running less than 40% of the time.
Last year’s Vikings ran 36.2% of the time; only 17 of the decade’s 108 playoff teams have run on less than 40% of their offensive snaps. Run-heavy teams are rare — only 16 this decade have run on more than 50% of their snaps — and the analytics community still believes the league is running too much.
“You’d be much more efficient if your pass/run ratio was more like 70/30 or 75/25 — until you have the lead in the fourth quarter,” Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz said. “The reason you’d want your pass/run ratio to be 60/40 is because you want to be running the ball a bunch when you have a lead.”
The Vikings believe the trick to balance in the modern NFL is an ability to run often enough to provide a counterpunch.
“In order to win, you have to run it and throw it,” said offensive line coach Rick Dennison, who coordinates the team’s run game. “You can’t just be one-dimensional in those things. We strive to put the run game together, match it with play-action, just make sure we’re in the right place and keep on schedule, so we can threaten everything.”
Benefits that stats can’t measure
The leaguewide shift to pass-happy offenses has been driven by a friendlier set of rules designed to boost scoring; a pipeline of players coming from wide-open offenses in college; and analytics that suggest throwing the ball is an unequivocally more effective way to move down the field.
According to Pro Football Reference, the NFL’s best rushing offense generally delivers, on an annual basis, the same number of expected points as a middling passing game. In seven of nine seasons from 2010-18, the top running game ranked no higher than 16th, in terms of expected points, when compared to a passing game. And as play-action rates spike even as running frequency drops, analytics have confronted two truisms: A sound running game is necessary to set up play-action, and that teams run more effectively in the fourth quarter as a result of wearing the other team down.
“Here’s the thing about the run: It was more important in the past than it is in the current NFL, and it’s more important at lower levels of the game than it is in the current NFL,” Schatz said. “You have offensive coordinators who are in their 30s, so they weren’t around in the ’70s and ’80s. But you still have kind of that leftover feeling from the past, when the run was more important because the pass was not as efficient as it is now. And there’s been a lot of guys who worked their way up ... and they’ve been at the college level where the run is more important.”
Safety Harrison Smith has encountered many of those studies; his experience on the field leads him to a different conclusion.
“I’ve seen the analytics say the short, quick throws — like the RPOs [run-pass options] — are a running game, and I can kind of get on board with that,” Smith said. “But there’s nothing like being physically overmatched. It’s just a different feeling.”
Smith retained some skepticism, with the idea that play-action can be effective without a strong running game. “A lot of it has to do with the score. If we’re up three touchdowns, and your team is running play-action shots, I don’t really care,” he said. “I mean, I do, but it’s going to be hard for them to get back in the game if it’s the third quarter. If you can’t run the ball, why would we be biting on play-action?”
Do defenses get to the point where they can ignore the fake altogether if there’s not a strong running game behind it?
“If it’s like a crazy late [in the] game and you’re up three scores, you just react to it,” Smith said. “But when teams have success running the ball — I think you saw with our team last week. When we’re running the hell out of the ball, it’s going to open up the play-action shots. It has to; otherwise, we don’t have to run the play-action shots. We’re just going to keep running it. I don’t know if analytics can cover that. It’s just the reality of it.
“The Rams and the Saints, when people talk about all these different things they do passingwise, it’s because they run the ball, too, in my opinion. If they’re not running the ball, that stuff’s not going to be set up as well. I don’t think you can always go into the mind of defensive players, just from pure analytics.”
Bears could test Vikings’ mettle
The Vikings’ run game, which had only 13 runs of 20 yards or more last year, has an NFL-high seven through three weeks, thanks largely to a healthy Dalvin Cook and an athletic offensive line that can shed defensive tackles and get to the second level on zone runs.
“It’s just the feel of the back seeing where we’re going, but it’s also the feel of the players next to each other,” Dennison said. “The guard and tackle have to see it with the same set of eyes. They’ve got to feel when they’re passing certain things off.”
Their challenge this week is a Bears team that last year had the 13th-best run defense in the NFL dating back to 1986, according to Football Outsiders.
“I want to be able to run the ball. I don’t want to run the ball 40 times and throw it 10; I want to have balance,” Zimmer said. “If we’re running the ball effectively like we have been, we’ve had some big play runs in there, and we’ve had a couple that are really, really close ones. It’ll be harder to run the ball this week. These guys are a load up front. It may be a different ballgame this week.”
For better or worse, though, there seems to be little discord about how the 2019 Vikings want to operate.
“I know it’s harder to find certain individuals in the draft; it’s hard to find fullbacks, it’s hard to find in-line tight ends,” Dennison said. “You can find pass-catchers, and you can find a lot of different things. It’s what you have, a certain level of those, and that’s fine. That’s just not what I know.”