Minnesota Vikings: Offensive Preview – How Good is the Running Game?
Negative plays, stalled drives, and field goals are all memories of a 2016 season that lacked firepower on offense. It is why the Minnesota Vikings made bolstering their offense a priority during the offseason.
They added weapons through the air and in the backfield to address the lack of explosiveness on offense. The team also signed two offensive tackles and drafted Pat Elflein, a center who is a capable day-one starter. The goal is to score over 21 points per game, according to head coach Mike Zimmer. Had the offense reached the 21-point mark, the team would have likely won three or four more games in 2016.
The only way the offense can accomplish Zimmer’s offensive goal is by running the football more effectively. The Vikings averaged 3.2 yards per carry last year. They need to improve this statistic drastically.
With Dalvin Cook being a dynamic weapon out of the shotgun and in the passing game, the Minnesota Vikings added a new element to their offense. Not to mention, the addition of Latavius Murray, who can run between the tackles effectively, will be a nice complement to Cook. Get Jerick McKinnon in space and the Vikings have a talented trio of running backs. Now, it is all about how the offensive line will hold up. Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, and Pat Elflein all will help the running game because of their past success as run blockers.
The offensive line was getting essentially no push at certain points of the season. Between 2012 and 2015, the Vikings averaged 4.85 yards per carry, significantly lower than their 3.2 yards per carry mark last year. Being unable to run the football placed the Vikings in long down situations and teams took advantage. Opposing defenses blitzed more and it placed a strain on the passing game. The enhanced pressure forced quarterback Sam Bradford to check down or throw shorter patterns.
Bradford is one of the most accurate vertical passers in the league and the Vikings would benefit from having an offensive line that could hold their blocks long enough for deeper drops in the pocket. That is the biggest concern with the free agent additions on the offensive line. They have a history of struggling in pass protection. However, Reiff and Remmers both will be returning to their natural positions after flipping sides last year in Detroit and Carolina. The Minnesota Vikings do not need to have an elite-caliber offensive line. An average unit would be a significant upgrade over the bottom barrel group from 2016. In order to be competitive, serviceable pass protection and improved run blocking will be critical.
In addition, the Vikings could not sustain drives or punch the ball in the end zone when they got inside the 20-yard-line. Minnesota had the fourth-worst red zone touchdown scoring percentage (46%) and settled for field goals far too often. The team added Michael Floyd and Bucky Hodges to bolster their red zone offense. The coaches believe Laquon Treadwell can be a difference-maker inside the red zone as well.
However, the real problem centers around the lack of a running game. Drives ended because the Vikings could not run the ball on early downs, placing them in daunting third down situations. According to NFL stats, the Vikings allowed 45 negative yards plays. This put a huge weight on the back of Minnesota’s third down offense. The offensive line needs to get leverage and open lanes for the running backs to be effective. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray provide the Vikings with the first formidable duo since Adrian Peterson teamed up with Chester Taylor in 2009. The offensive line must provide lanes to maximize this potential.
By running the ball well, the Vikings can sustain drives, which leads to moving the ball up the field and scoring touchdowns. Not to mention, it helps shift the time of possession. The Minnesota Vikings were in the middle of the league when it came to time of possession. However, they ranked in the bottom seven over the final three games. It was clear to see the defense broke down and became more tired as the year went on. It seems like they were compensating for offensive deficiencies. This was particularly noticeable after the 17-15 Week 13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Vikings added help in the backfield, more protection up front, and bolstered their red zone targets. However, having the personnel and executing are two separate ideas. The offensive line is the single biggest difference maker to improving the running game and getting the offense back on its feet. It will be fascinating to see how the unit performs in training camp and the preseason. With three new additions to the starting lineup, the offensive line will be one of the most intriguing positions to evaluate leading up to the season.
Right now, the Minnesota Vikings are better from a personnel standpoint. Durability and execution will ultimately decide whether their offense takes the necessary step toward competitiveness.