With so much of the analysis regarding the struggles of the Minnesota Vikings 2016 offense, much of the blame was placed on injuries and ineffectiveness on the offensive line, especially in pass protection.
However, head coach Mike Zimmer saw things a little differently. It seems that he believes the lack of a running game – the Vikings finished last in rushing yards and average per carry – made it easier for teams to pressure the quarterback.
“We were so one-dimensional last year with just having to throw the ball. We couldn’t run it at all and it allowed opposing defenses to lay their ears back, play a lot of coverage,” Zimmer said at the NFL owners meetings. “In a perfect world, I want to be able to run the football and play-action and then still be able to throw it.”
Most of the Vikings’ available salary-cap dollars in free agency went to solving that issue. They signed two offensive tackles, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, who will account for a combined $13.6 million in 2017 cap dollars. They replaced Adrian Peterson with Latavius Murray in the backfield. Murray signed a three-year contract that averages $5 million per season and could be opted out of after one year without too much financial ramification. Peterson would have counted $18 million against the salary cap if the Vikings had picked up his 2017 option.
With Peterson available for a full season in 2015, the Vikings ran the ball 474 times. Last year, that number fell to 380.
Consequently, the Vikings ended up throwing the ball much more in 2016, when they attempted 588 passes, with Sam Bradford accounting for 552 of those. The year before, they attempted 454 passes.
“Obviously we’ve got to run the ball a lot better so we’ve got to run the ball,” Zimmer said. “I do think Sam throws the ball great so I’m not afraid to move us back into the gun, but with our running game, we’ve got to be great at play-action pass, so we’ve got to develop that part of it,” Zimmer said.
Within the flow of the game, Zimmer also found plenty of areas he would like to see improve.
“We weren’t very good in the red zone. One of the studies we did on both sides of the ball – if a team converts a third-down conversion inside the red zone they usually score touchdowns, whether it’s against us or for us,” he said. “So we’re going to work real hard on that area, inside the 5-yard line we’re going to work because we weren’t very good on either side of the ball there. I think if we can get the running game going it will help the play-action and it help the balls go down the field.”
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The Vikings finished 2016 tied for 18th in third-down conversions, 23rd in points per game and 28th in offense inside the 20-yard line – 46 percent of their red zone trips resulted in touchdowns and 80 percent resulted in points.
Zimmer believes that Bradford, as good as he was in his first season in Minnesota, should improve with a full offseason of work in the system. The head coach would also like to see some of those key offensive numbers improve and believes an improved running game is the catalyst.
“We were almost totally, 100 percent one-dimensional, which made it extra tough for the quarterback because teams were able to load up on us, rush the quarterback and play more coverage,” Zimmer said. “I thought he did great. He hung in there, he got rocked and showed his toughness. He’s an extremely accurate thrower.”
But if the Vikings can have more consistency running the ball, it should help their third-down and red zone conversions, which would give them a better offensive look.