The Vikings offense was going through an identity crisis heading into its bye week in early October.
The Vikings had two of their highest-scoring games in the first four weeks of the season and put up 20 points on the stingy Denver defense. But running back Adrian Peterson was uncomfortable in their shotgun spread attack and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was averaging only 6.7 yards per pass attempt playing behind an offensive line with limitations in pass protection.
The Vikings emerged from their bye week with a run-oriented offense centered on Peterson, a philosophy more in line with theirs in the other two phases of the game, and put up enough points to win six of their next seven games.
“As coaches, there’s always things that we want to do,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “But it really comes down to, what can the players do and what can they do best?”
In their latest win, a 20-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, the Vikings stuck with what they do best even though the NFL’s top-ranked run defense entering Week 12 routinely put eight or nine defenders in the box.
Peterson rushed for a respectable 48 yards on 12 first-half carries. But the Vikings kept lining up Peterson behind Bridgewater, often with a fullback or multiple tight ends on the field, and continued to pound the Falcons with the league’s leading rusher. He rumbled for 110 yards on 17 second-half carries and put the game away with a 35-yard touchdown run.
After the win, Peterson complimented the Falcons, perhaps backhandedly, by saying he thought he could have rushed for 250 yards had the Falcons not done such a good job of limiting him to so many 5- and 7-yard runs.
The Vikings as a team rushed for 191 yards and have topped 140 in seven games this season. It is no coincidence that they won all of them.
Typically, teams that win run the ball more often than losing teams because they are trying to run out the clock late in games. But in this case, the Vikings are winning because of their commitment to the run through all four quarters, even if they aren’t scoring many style points by preferring tight, low-scoring games.
“That’s just kind of the style we’re playing right now,” Zimmer said. “It’s really who we are and I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Since the bye week, the Vikings have more runs (220) than pass attempts (208) and have averaged 152 rushing yards per game over that span. Overall, only the undefeated Carolina Panthers have called a fewer percentage of passing plays this season than the Vikings, who run it 48.1 percent of the time.
And it’s not just that the Vikings are running the ball more frequently. It’s how they are doing it.
After putting Bridgewater in the shotgun on 58.5 percent of their offensive plays before the bye week, the Vikings have done it 42.7 percent of the time since then, according to Pro Football Focus. Against the Falcons, Bridgewater was under center on about two-thirds of the plays.
The shotgun handoffs that made Peterson hesitate in the hole early in the season have been nearly nonexistent. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner only called six of them the past three weeks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Plus, the Vikings have been plowing over defenders by using more formations with two or three tight ends and by giving fullback Zach Line a few more snaps per game.
“It seems to be working for us right now, so we’re sticking to it,” Rhett Ellison, the team’s best blocking tight end, said. “It’s not any kind of magic formula or anything.”
The run-first-second-and-maybe-third approach has led to limited opportunities in the passing game. Only the Seattle Seahawks, this weekend’s opponent, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had fewer pass attempts this season. And you won’t find a Vikings wide receiver in the top 50 players in the league in receptions.
“It definitely takes a lot of unselfishness, especially when you have guys in our room that have made a lot of plays,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said.
If any of those wideouts aren’t used to it by now, they better get on board. Those bye-week tweaks keep paying off and the Vikings plan on sticking with what they do best.
“As long as we’re getting Ws, the script won’t change much,” Line said.