The Minnesota Vikings are coming into the playoffs on a high note. They are riding a three-game winning streak and their last win was against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, where the team had not won since 2009. That win was also for the division title.
That final regular-season game was a big one for the Vikings, and while they were able to put up 20 points on the Packers, only one of those scores came from the offense having to march down the field, and even that drive was assisted by a fake punt where Adam Thielen ran for 41 yards.
The other scores, not including Captain Munnerlyn’s fumble return for a touchdown, came when the Vikings started at their own 42- and 43-yard lines. When an offense is given a short field like that they should score almost every time.
The Vikings defense and special teams consistently set the offense up with good field position throughout the night, and that contributed to the win. But the offense seemed out of sync all night, especially when trying to throw the ball downfield.
Head coach Mike Zimmer knows that is going to have to change as they enter into the playoffs, especially in the first round as they take on the Seattle Seahawks, who have one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the playoffs this season.
“We’re not as explosive as I would like,” Zimmer said. “I’d like us to be more explosive. We’ve really had to manage things over there.”
There have been plenty of chances for the Vikings to be more explosive; they have just had trouble connecting. In last weekend’s game against the Packers, for example, the Vikings took three shots of 20 or more yards on their first drive alone. All three would have gone for touchdowns, but quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was unable to connect with his intended targets.
Bridgewater usually takes the heat for the reason the explosive plays have been so minimal this season. People have criticized his downfield accuracy, his arm strength and anything else that has to do with throwing the deep ball, but Zimmer said it is not all his fault.
“I think he throws the ball good down the field, it’s just sometimes we’re not allowed to throw the ball down the field,” Zimmer said.
“Things break down. It’s either protection, the coverage dictates that it goes to another place and he’s missed some. He missed one to Wallace in Chicago; he missed one to McKinnon the other night. He’s missed some of those we’ve had, or there’s been some open where the protection broke down or the coverage got rolled the other way or a number of things.”
The head coach said that the key for the offense to complete these shots down the field is to first control the line of scrimmage and get the running game going and then to complete the open passes underneath. That allows the offense to get the ball in manageable distances on second and third down and sustain drives.
It is a concept that players on the offense seem to agree with, and one they are likely going to use early on in the game.
“Obviously we’ve got to keep the ball and maintain drives,” said fullback Zach Line. “I think the biggest thing for us this game is to play physical, especially with the elements we’re going to have. I think the more physical team in cold-weather games like this is really going to wear down and take away the want when it’s this cold.”
But Line is a fullback. Of course he is going to say the team needs to establish the running game. It’s his specialty. The strategy makes a lot of sense, though. If the offense can establish the running game and impose their will on the defense it will open things up in the passing game.
When a team is successful on the ground, it causes opponents to load up to stop the run, which means there are a lot more one-on-one opportunities on the outside with the receivers. Usually those matchups tend to favor the receivers, but the Seahawks back-end defenders are talented enough to usually hold their own.
Still, the Vikings’ receivers are hoping for those one-on-one opportunities on the outside, especially Mike Wallace.
“They have some really good DBs, honestly, but personally I don’t feel like anyone can cover me one-on-one,” he said. “It’s just a matter of opportunity, but they are pretty much the best in the league at it, though.”
In the Vikings’ best games of the season they have been able to get off to fast starts, but for some reason they have not been able to do that on a consistent basis. It often seems as though the offense struggles to get things moving at the start of the game and then they put themselves in a hole they need to work out of.
Wide receiver Jarius Wright knows that they cannot allow that to happen this week and believes their best chance to be successful this weekend is to get the offense rolling early.
“We just have to come out and play Vikings football, and start early,” he said. “That’s always one of the biggest things. Try to get an early start and put a little pressure on them. I feel like a lot of pressure was on us this last game.”
The Seahawks finished the season with the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL, so it will be a tall task for the Vikings to connect on explosive plays that have not been there much of the season. But if they are able to get off to a fast start, establish the run and complete the short passes, then there is a chance things might open up downfield for them. Then it just comes down to completing the pass.