As the Minnesota Vikings travel to Chicago this weekend to play the Bears at Soldier Field, head coach Mike Zimmer seems comfortable about talking about his offense’s improvement moving into and out of their Week 10 bye.
Watching Mike Zimmer at a short press conference at the TCO Performance Center on Wednesday, he just seemed ‘cool’. This is not to suggest that the guy is ever really an uneven presentation emotionally, but there was something in his demeanor that distinctly expressed confidence.
In the context of his answers to questions regarding his team’s offense, it’s pretty clear he likes what he’s seeing in practice, and in games during the last month-and-a-half.
“We’ve gotten a lot better with our running game.”
Extremely true. In the first five games of the season, the Vikings averaged 65.8 yards a game on the ground. In the last four games, they’ve averaged 124. That is indeed “a lot” better.
Add the fact that Dalvin Cook, expected to miss Week 8’s game against the Lions, not only re-appeared in uniform at U.S. Bank Stadium, but was clocked at running over 22 MPH on a 70-yard blast in the second quarter, you could add one more “lot” to that better.
“Our passing game has been pretty good all season, but I think the running game has helped solidify the variation in the offense.”
This clearly was euphemistic talk for Zimmer’s desire to get back to the power running game being a crucial element to this offense.
In Week 5, Minnesota suffered an exhausting 38-31 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles. In the game, the Vikings rushed only 17 times for 54 out of their 442 total yards, a dismal 3.1-yard average.
It may sound crazy, but I think (and most likely so does Zimmer) that they lost this game because they didn’t run enough.
Down by only seven points late in the fourth quarter, the Vikings’ offense had two timeouts left with 1:30 left on the game clock and the ball at midfield.
What happened? In the fourth straight passing play of the possession, Kirk Cousins had the ball stripped from him. Rams recover, take over, kneel out the clock.
With 1:30 and two timeouts, you’re aiming for the red zone and you have an eternity to get there. Take what they give you. We’ll all heard of a defensive line “pinning their ears back” and coming after the passer. That was a textbook illustration of it that cost Minnesota the game.
Looking over replays of that clinching turnover shows that the Rams’ offense could have been gashed easily up the middle with a simple trap play. They were clearly in dime zone coverage with one linebacker floating on the defense’s second level.
It had come time for Mike Zimmer to have a chat with Vikings’ offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo. A little talk that explained–from the perspective of a defensive coach–the vulnerability of an offense that abandons their running game.
Next week, Minnesota had the unenvious task of returning to Philadelphia to play the Eagles in a rematch of the 2017 NFC Championship Game. After two straight losses, they needed something to change.
Something did, and it’s likely a coaches’ meeting had much to do with it.
The Vikings ran the ball against the Eagles 23 times while passing 37 times. Though this was only a small rushing average change from the Los Angeles game, it allowed Minnesota to control the clock through most of the game and take a 20-3 until late in the third quarter and avenge one of their most awful losses in franchise history.
The next week, the Vikings (without Dalvin Cook) rushed for 195 yards and held the Cardinals to 60 with an easy win over Arizona. Since then, they’ve averaged 24 carries a game in three weeks and last Sunday got their primary running back (Cook) back on the field.
Later, when asked about his offense and it’s turnovers, Zimmer gave a clear and traditional response.
“We’ve got to do what we need to do.”
Of course, Zimmer wasn’t going to tell anyone “what” they were going to do, but he indicated quite directly that it was going to get done.
Ironically (and in regard to turnovers), the best example of “the variation” of the Minnesota Vikings’ offense was on display in the terrifically disappointing loss against the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago.
To begin that game, the Vikings were a stunning example of their ideal potential. John DeFilippo put together a game-plan that mixed run and pass expertly in first half Viking drives against the New Orleans defense.
There were a few miscues, a couple of penalties, but in all, it was stunning to watch. There was a clean pocket, solid running lanes and open receivers everywhere! The last team in the NFL that the Vikings seemed intimidated by was from Louisiana.
The Vikings’ defense was just as tight. The Saints’ run and screen game were being body-slammed, Drew Brees had been forced into a Harrison Smith interception, and it took a 52-yard field goal and a few of Sean Payton‘s trick plays to get the Saints to 10 points.
But then–just like that, heart-breaking turnovers ruined a really nice chapter in the book of the 2018 Minnesota Vikings. They were sudden and devastating, in all, a 21-point swing in the loss.
We don’t need to go over them. You and I saw them. All the people at U.S. Bank Stadium saw them. The hero dies in the middle of the film. The bad guy gets the girl.
But, to be realistic and positive about it, turnovers hang around a team that has a tendency to beat itself. That doesn’t describe the Vikings very well. Yes, quarterback Kirk Cousins has had his share–and no doubt they cause Vikings fans some anxiety–but if the last matter of this essay relates at all to the first matter, a consistent, successful, and potentially game-breaking running attack may help to cure this offenses’ most dramatic mistakes.
I think Zimmer is ‘cool’ on the mic because he’s feeling the same way.