Over the past 20 NFL seasons there have only been 10 games in which a team threw the ball 10 times or fewer, with the Vikings’ 28-12 victory over Atlanta on Sunday being the most recent example.
And while everyone around the club agrees that it was a unique game, the simple fact is that this team is going to continue to focus on running the football — even though their four highest-paid offensive players are quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings’ run game the past few seasons has totaled some of the worst marks in franchise history.
Their 2018 total of 1,493 rushing yards ranked 55th out of 58 franchise seasons and their 2016 total of 1,205 yards ranked 57th.
That’s why when Rudolph was asked for his impression of the victory over Atlanta, he said that, while the team won’t pass only 10 times in each game, the pass game will be built off the run.
“It is definitely the identity of this football team,” he said. “And we’re going to try to get back to continuing to run the football well.”
What did he think of Dalvin Cook’s 111-yard day?
“He is incredibly talented, a great runner with great vision,” Rudolph said. “All you have to do is give him a little space and he’ll make explosive plays.”
And for all the talk about the Vikings’ revamped offensive line this offseason, Rudolph thought their Week 1 victory was strong evidence that this group can really succeed.
“I thought the offensive line played great,” he said. “Anytime you can run the ball that well it’s because of those guys up front. We leaned on them for four quarters.”
The Vikings’ 172 rushing yards in Week 1 was the highest mark in the NFC, and there’s no doubt that the offensive philosophy brought in by new assistant head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison is going to be evident this season.
“There is always similarities and carry-over [from last year],” Rudolph said. “But we’re going to try to run the ball more and take advantage of that run game in the pass game.”
The nine-year veteran said that he’s excited by the combination of Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
“Kevin is a guy that I have had as a position coach [in 2014-15], he’s a great football coach in this league and we’re excited to have him calling plays,” Rudolph said. “Kubes is an incredible mentor and a guy who has won a lot of championships in this league. An incredible offensive mind and he has a system that has been proven for a long time.”
Rudolph has had some of his greatest success against the Packers in his career as he has more receiving yards against them (587) than any other club.
Last year, he caught seven passes for 72 yards in a 29-29 tie at Green Bay in Week 2. He followed that up with seven receptions for 63 yards in the Vikings’ 24-17 home victory in Week 12.
He said this game is one of the biggest of the year.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s a division game so essentially it counts as two. It’s a road division game, which is even bigger, and a great rivalry, as well.”
He added that one of the biggest challenges in going against a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers on the road is keeping the Vikings offense on the field.
“It’s very hard to play at Lambeau, especially against a great quarterback,” he said. “We know we have our work cut out for us.
“Aaron is always tough. Anytime you play against a great quarterback, a future Hall of Famer, for us as an offense it’s important that we stay on the field and keep him on the bench.”
2-0 is all that matters
A year ago, the Gophers beat New Mexico State 48-10 handily at home and then beat Fresno State 21-14 at home to start 2-0, while this year the club struggled to beat South Dakota State at home and had to go to double overtime to beat Fresno State on the road.
I asked Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck if that means that the team is not as good as last season.
“We played two very good opponents. One team that won 12 games last year, another team that won 10 games last year and was ranked 18th in the country,” Fleck said. “I wouldn’t say that we started slow, I wouldn’t say that at all. I would say that we’re changing our best every day.
“This team is completely different than last year. That’s why I always say last year is not a direct extension of this year. It’s a completely different entity. We have our own challenges, our own opportunities this year. This is a completely different team. We’re 2-0. We have to be 1-0 in the Georgia Southern season [on Saturday], some how, some way. That is our only focus.”
A lot of things haven’t gone according to plan for the Gophers in their first two games this season.
They currently rank 10th in the Big Ten in scoring offense and 13th in scoring defense, after ranking eighth in both categories last season, and both of their games have come down to the final few plays.
Fleck said one of the benefits to having two close victories to start the season is that you can celebrate the wins while also finding a lot of things to work on.
In the Fresno State game, his team made a number of uncharacteristic errors that nearly cost the Gophers the game.
“We’re going in to make it 14-0 [in the first quarter] and Mohamed Ibrahim fumbles, which is uncharacteristic of us. We have a [facemask] personal foul on Tai’yon Devers. Our quarterback [Tanner Morgan] fumbled. We dropped a snap, as well. We muffed a punt and turned it over. We turned the ball over way too much and had too many penalties that were costly,” he said. “We had under 100 yards rushing on defense. We had one explosive play on defense. We had three three-and-outs that on the third down ended on a penalty and then that drive added a touchdown. That was three drives that we were off the field [on defense] that all turned into touchdowns later on, where we [shouldn’t have] seen that next play. I think our team learned a lot from that.”
And while Fleck is focused on getting to 3-0, he said he is focusing on the positive as he tries to improve this club.
“The hard part is, every day is a surprise. But as a head football coach it is hard to go home happy every day because you’re always finding ways to be able to get better and finding the challenging parts to make better,” he said. “But I’m really proud of the team’s effort and their progress.”