Even after they had heard about it all offseason, even after they had devoted hours of practice time to fixing it, the Vikings still were facing the same problems scoring touchdowns in the red zone through the first half of 2017 that they experienced in 2016.
Red-zone issues dogged the Vikings through much of last season, when they ranked 28th in the NFL with a 46 percent success rate at scoring touchdowns inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Nothing had changed in the first eight games this year; the Vikings had scored TDs on only 46.4 percent of their red-zone trips.
So before players departed for their Week 9 break, coach Mike Zimmer made it clear what he wanted fixed.
“It’s been a point of emphasis,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
How, pray tell, does Zimmer emphasize a point?
“It was all we did for two days straight,” Rudolph said.
The problem, in the Vikings’ four games since the bye week, appears to have been solved.
The Vikings are 12-for-15 on scoring touchdowns in the red zone in their past four victories, and the two trips that haven’t resulted in points were kneel-downs at the end of their victories at Detroit and Atlanta. The only time where the Vikings tried to score a touchdown and didn’t came when Kai Forbath kicked a 36-yard field goal against the Lions.
In their 14-9 victory over the Falcons on Sunday, the Vikings scored a pair of touchdowns on their first two trips inside the 20, with Case Keenum hitting Jerick McKinnon for a 2-yard score in the second quarter after Rudolph’s route created a natural pick, and the tight end then catching a 6-yard pass from Keenum to start the fourth quarter.
Atlanta’s one trip into the red zone resulted in a field goal.
“Really, the difference in the ballgame was probably the third-down conversions for both teams, and we scored touchdowns in the red zone and they didn’t score any,” Zimmer said Sunday.
Even during a decade where they could lean on Adrian Peterson to finish drives, the Vikings weren’t particularly proficient in the red zone. They finished in the bottom half of the league during six of Peterson’s 10 seasons in Minnesota, ranking 18th during his MVP season in 2012 and placing 19th and 24th in the final two seasons (2013 and 2015) where the running back was available for most of the season.
In the Vikings’ first three losses after a 5-0 start last year, they made a combined 10 trips into the red zone. They scored touchdowns only three times, and came away with only two other field goals. One of those trips into the red zone, against the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium last November, ended with the Vikings punting after penalties, a 4-yard loss on a run and a sack backed them up to the Detroit 40.
And the last time the Vikings lost a game, again at home to the Lions in October, their bid to tie the score was foiled when Anthony Zettel sacked Keenum at the Lions 3.
“The advantage goes to the defense a little bit [in the red zone] because now you’re playing sidelines and backlines and things like that,” Zimmer said. “Offensively, you have to understand that the windows are going to be a lot tighter, so you are trying to get some more space width-wise. … Most of the time you can anticipate a little bit more pressure down there, with some of the teams, depending on their makeup and things like that, because they don’t have as much to lose. It’s a lot of things that we just try to teach, that’s all.”
Zimmer’s lessons have sunk in since the bye week. The Vikings went 5-for-5 on red zone trips in a 38-30 victory at Washington when they returned from the bye. Setting aside the two drives they ended in victory formation, the Vikings are 11-for-11 in goal-to-go situations since the bye.
It has helped them retain their offensive productivity in games against the Lions and Falcons, where big plays haven’t been as plentiful for Keenum and company. And it has come at a time where the Vikings defense has given up only four TDs in 11 red-zone drives since the bye.
“The bye week is the time to go back and self-scout, and see what you’re not doing well and need to do better,” Rudolph said. “It’s something we were not doing very well on defense [having given up three red zone TDs in two losses], and we weren’t converting on offense. It’s literally what we did for two days straight.”
The emphasis, indeed, has led to more points.