While it does seem clear that the tide has turned significantly in McKinnon’s direction as being the primary running back, head coach Mike Zimmer has been non-committal about who will be the starter and McKinnon is convinced that if either he or Matt Asiata gets hot and is running well, the offense will ride on his back.
“I’d pretty much say it’s up in the air,” McKinnon said of the time share. “Whoever gets the hot hand – if you got a guy who goes in there and is obviously in a rhythm, you don’t pull him out. I would probably they go with the hot hand.”
The Vikings will be playing a defense that doesn’t take a back seat to the Lions in terms of ferocity. Detroit brought the No. 1 overall defense to the table last Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium and did everything to live up to that ranking.
This week, the Vikings head into Buffalo, where the Bills boast the league’s top-rated run defense. As McKinnon sees it, there is a lot to be impressed with watching film on the Bills and there is a certain sense of déjà vu with the tendencies both defenses have as it pertains to attacking the run.
“It’s the same thing,” McKinnon said. “It’s going to be a tough game. Their front four is just as good. We’ve got to really dial in this week and take, not a different approach in the preparation, but a better approach. Coming off of two losses, we’ve got to get better offensive-wise.”
Had the Vikings lost Adrian Peterson under the old coaching regime, McKinnon may well have remained the backup behind Asiata. While some teams tailor their game plans around the strengths of an opposing defense and can have a much different look from one game to the next – New England comes immediately to mind – the Vikings of the Leslie Frazier-Bill Musgrave ticket would continue to hammer home the same concepts, trying to impose their will with a nearly identical approach.
The new offense under Norv Turner is willing to concede that an opponent has specific strengths and will work on trying to exploit their weaknesses rather than force-feeding the ball into the strength of the opposing defense. Some have speculated that McKinnon got the start last week because the Lions defensive line pins its ears back and comes after the quarterback, which opens the potential for screen passes to be big-gainers if they bring the house and don’t get there in time.
Asked if the offense does make changes in their game plan to take into account what an opponent does best, McKinnon was candid about the approach the new-look Vikings offense is taking.
“You’d probably get a better answer from Coach Norv, but I’d say so,” McKinnon said. “Every defense has their strong points and obviously their weak points. We definitely try to figure out what gives us the best advantage against their defense and capitalize on it.” The playing-time arrow is definitely pointing in McKinnon’s direction over Asiata. Against New England, the first game after Peterson was deactivated, Asiata was on the field for 68 percent of the offensive plays while McKinnon was on the field 33 percent of the time. In the coming three weeks, Asiata’s percentages fell (from 70 to 57 to 55 percent), while McKinnon’s went up (from 30 to 43 to 39).
When he got his chance to start, the numbers completely flipped. McKinnon was on the field for 68 percent of the offensive snaps, as opposed to just 23 percent for Asiata – who was fighting off Joe Banyard (10 percent) for backup playing time.
McKinnon brings more explosiveness to the offense, but he knows that his effort will be for naught if he doesn’t earn the job he won last week.
“The biggest thing is consistency,” McKinnon said. “That’s a big word in this league. A guy has to be consistent at what he does, whether it’s pass (protection), running the ball, making the right reads, stuff like that.”
In the end, the key for the Vikings to get out of their current skid and start winning games will be opening things up for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. With Peterson out of the picture – both in the short term and quite possibly permanently – Bridgewater is the new face of the offense and establishing the running game will be critical to not only Teddy’s success, but the success of the team as a whole.
“I think it would take a great deal of pressure off of him,” McKinnon said. “If you’ve got a good running game, it’s going to open up the passing game and complement each other. From a running standpoint, we’ve got to be better, find a way to get yards, get Teddy more comfortable and find a way to make plays.”
Last week, McKinnon made his debut as a starter. How long that will last and to the extent he remains the primary running back in the system will be largely up to what he does on the field. Facing two of the top run defenses in the NFL in back to back games is no way to begin your career as a starter, but McKinnon will take it. It beats not starting.