More like the "Dead Zone"

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

The NFL Sunday Ticket Red Zone channel is the greatest invention since, well…American football. It takes everything we love about Sunday football — touchdowns, highlights, big plays — and condenses it into one continuous stream so that fans don’t miss any of the action.

Tom Brady threw a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski in the corner of the end zone? Red Zone shows you the play. The Browns fumbled the ball on fourth-and-one from the five? Red Zone takes you straight to the action. The Minnesota Vikings…kick another field goal? Unfortunately, Red Zone cuts to Blair Walsh, kicking yet another field goal from within an opponents’ 20 yard-line.

In most cases, you want the station to cut your team in the red zone — it’s the land of golden opportunity on the gridiron, the area of the field that puts tremendous stress on opposing defenses. But as a Vikings fan, it’s more “Dead Zone” than any of those analogies. Even with a historically successful red zone running back and efficient quarterback, these 2015 Minnesota Vikings are struggling to put points on the board from the 20-in.

Red Zone Woes

According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings are one of the worst teams in the red zone, both in terms of scoring touchdowns (22nd) and total points scored (26th) per “trip.” It all begins with Norv Turner, the mastermind behind the Vikings’ offense. At times, his play-calling is superb, as he mixes formations, motions, and personnel to confuse opposing defenses. If football were played between the red zones, the Vikings would thrive.

Unfortunately, it’s not, and Turner puts his team in difficult situations by becoming predictable on first and second down. Below, a look at every first down and second down play run by the Vikings this season, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:

20 total plays (19 run, one pass)
1st Down: 20 total plays (19 run, one pass)
22 total plays (12 pass, 10 rush)
2nd Down: 18 total plays (10 run, 8 pass)

Understandably, Turner put the ball in Peterson’s hands 13 of a possible 20 times on first down. Peterson is the offense’s best player and usually, it’s most effective weapon in short-yardage situations. This season, however, Peterson has struggled to find running room in the red zone. On 24 total carries, he’s gained just 26 yards to average 1.08 yards per carry.

Jerrick McKinnon, known more for his elusiveness and open-field ability,  has five red zone carries for 20 yards. Thanks to his low center of gravity and deceptive strength, McKinnon can hide behind blockers and sneak through holes in condensed formations; a luxury Peterson can’t afford.

We’re also forgetting about Matt Asiata, who has scored three touchdowns in a game three times in his career — the most in NFL history. Unlike Peterson or McKinnon, Asiata’s skill set is rather straightforward. He’s going to run hard, he’s going to hit the hole, and he’s not going down at the hands of just one defender. That style has benefited Asiata in the past, as he’s thrived in the red zone. A quick look at his career touchdown log, again courtesy of Pro Football Reference, highlights his efficiency in short-yardage running plays:

12 of 13 TDs = 10 yards or less
12 of 13 TDs = 10 yards or less

Of Asiata’s 13 career touchdowns, 12 have come inside the 10 yard-line. He’s not the home run threat that Peterson is, or a shifty back like McKinnon, but Asiata provides some value to this team, especially when they need to score on a short field.

Why, then, isn’t he being used in the red zone? Asking Peterson to run on a majority of first down situations in the red zone is setting him up for failure. Defenses are learning Turner’s tendencies and using them against the Vikings. Switching running backs in those situations may help, but it’s not the answer. The answer is simple — the offense needs to get more creative on first down.

That’s where the talk of “forcing Teddy Bridgewater to beat teams with his arm” comes into play. He’s more than capable of throwing touchdowns in the red zone. Last season, Bridgewater completed 18 of 25 red zone passes, throwing eight touchdowns to just one interception over the course of the year. Through just six games this season, he’s attempted nearly as many passes, but as a consequence of negative plays on first downs. Because of their lack of success running the football on first down, the Vikings have been forced to throw more on second down. On eight second down passes in the red zone, Bridgewater has completed three for 26 yards and a touchdown. He’s also been sacked twice, likely the result of defenses expecting Bridgewater to drop back and take a shot into the end zone.

The Vikings have thrown once on first downs in the red zone this year (a touchdown to Mike Wallace against the Denver Broncos), and it’s not enough. Let Bridgewater take advantage of his weapons in the passing game, from Wallace to MyCole Pruitt to Kyle Rudolph.

Rudolph was especially effective when healthy least year, catching two touchdowns on three targets. This year, he’s pretty much been the entirety of the Vikings’ red zone passing attack. On seven targets, he’s caught three passes, with all of those resulting in six points. Turner needs to find a way to get players besides Rudolph more involved, and that begins with a change in play-calling.

Why not set the run up with a play-action fake on first down? Or split Rudolph out wide and run a fade, a la the New England Patriots with Rob Gronkowski or the Kansas City Chiefs and Travis Kielce? Running the ball hasn’t been effective, and Turner’s stubbornness to stray from predictable tendencies is leaving points on the field.

I’m rooting for Blair Walsh like any fan, but when the Red Zone channel flips to the Vikings game, I want to see Stefon Diggs catching a touchdown from Teddy Bridgewater or MyCole Pruitt snagging a pass out of the air in the end zone. Touchdowns, not field goals, are going to win the Vikings games against the teams they need to beat this season.