For the Vikings, It’s Third and a Long One Yard

Down a point to the Pittsburgh Steelers with nine seconds remaining, Ezekiel Elliott burst through the line of scrimmage and carried the Dallas Cowboys to an improbable win. His 32-yard touchdown sealed the game for Dallas, launching himself and the Cowboys into the NFL’s rarified air.

Last season, the Minnesota Vikings experienced similar joy — albeit, in a losing game — from Adrian Peterson. Down 10 to the Denver Broncos, facing a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter, Teddy Bridgewater handed the ball to Peterson. Minnesota’s All-Pro running back exploded through a crease and jaunted to the end zone for a 48-yard touchdown, pulling the Vikings within three.

Fast forward to the present day, and such short-yardage situations aren’t a gimmie for the current Vikings offense. Gone are the days of a push by the offensive line and decisive running between the tackles. Sure, the Vikings try to play “power football,” but the results have been alarmingly disappointing.

According to Sam Ekstrom, when the Vikings rush the football with between one and three yards to go, they’ve only gained 1.7 yards per carry on 47 attempts. And on those attempts, they’ve only converted first downs on 24 runs. Blame Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, or any of the team’s other backs, but the issues start up front.

The offensive line’s struggles, both in communication and technique, were painfully obvious against the Washington Redskins. Entering the game, Washington ranked 31st in rushing defense, allowing 4.9 yards per carry. If there were ever an opportunity to get things going on the ground, it was against a porous Redskins front seven.

Instead, the Vikings amassed just 47 yards on 21 carries, good for an average of 2.2 yards per carry. Washington was ready for Pat Shurmur’s new-look offense, scheming to win the numbers game in the box and attack the Vikings in obvious rushing situations. It worked, leading to a continuation of the same old, same old for Minnesota’s anemic running game.

“When you talk about eight third-and-1s on offense, that’s a lot of possessions there that you lose throughout the course of the game,” Zimmer said, reflecting on his team’s third down failures. “Sometimes you get in those short yardage situations and all of a sudden you get a different look. And you get some stunts in there, and they happened to hit them right.”

Teams have been “hitting them right,” for weeks now. Zimmer told reporters on Monday that Minnesota’s offense is 5-of-13 in 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 situations over the past four games. Their failures in short yardage — on both sides of the ball — are contributing factors in each of the four losses. When an offense can’t sustain drives, it puts more pressure on an overworked defense to “carry the day,” which is taking its toll on a unit that can’t seem to find its groove.

Back to the offense, though. The Vikings’ struggles at the line of scrimmage are correctable, but Matt Bowen put it best when he wrote: “You cannot fix an offensive line when it’s almost Thanksgiving.” Tony Sparano is running out of time, although the odds haven’t exactly been stacked in his favor. Minnesota lost Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Mike Harris, and Jake Long this season, giving the veteran coach a deck of jokers and wild cards across the board.

As part of a recent breakdown of the team’s running game in Washington, Bowen articulated a potential fix. “The Vikings might benefit from more film work and correction periods than practice time at this point,” he wrote. And looking at the film, he couldn’t be more right. Minnesota’s problems aren’t necessarily a lack of physicality, though

Minnesota’s problems aren’t necessarily due to a lack of physicality, though that has contributed to their ineffectiveness. It starts with the simplicities of offensive line play — communication and pre-snap identification.

Play No. 1

  • 3rd and 1 at MIN 34
  • (7:31 – 3rd) N.Easton reported in as eligible. M.Asiata right guard to MIN 34 for no gain (E.Hood; J.Norman)

Bowen broke down this play at ESPN, describing it as such:

“What they’re running here is a double lead. That’s all it is. You have the fullback kicking out on the edge support, Preston Smith, and you have the tight end off the ball [Ellison] leading up on the inside linebacker. You should make this play. Even with eight guys in the box, you should make this play.”

Not even Adrian Peterson would’ve gained a first down with this run blocking. The Vikings motion Rhett Ellison into the backfield, bringing Josh Norman into the box. This puts the teams in an even front — eight defenders for Washington to Minnesota’s eight blockers. Much has been made of Shurmur’s st

Much has been made of Shurmur’s continued adoption of an unpopular Norv Turner strategy — motioning receivers, tight ends, and fullbacks into the backfield. The action serves as a tell to defenses, tipping an offense’s hand and allowing defenders to disrupt plays in the backfield. Here, the Redskins fully commit to the run, stuffing the Vikings in what’s become an unpleasant trend in Minnesota.

As Bowen points out, Washington’s nose tackle shades to the closed side of the formation, or the side with the tight end. He’s technically in a 1-technique, lined up on the right half of the center. This produces what should be an easy combination block for the center and left guard, but neither player is able to gain leverage on the nose.

Both Joe Berger and Brandon Fusco fail to move the nose off the line of scrimmage, creating a logjam in the backfield. Fusco comes off his block too soon, moving to the second level and leaving Berger on an island. The nose drives Berger back, disrupting Matt Asiata’s path into the designated run hole. Adding to the disruption is another failed double-team, this time from Jake Long and Alex Boone.

The defensive end on the back side of the formation splits Boone and Long to tackle Asiata from behind. In almost every case, the back side end should never make a play in the backfield. An offense’s concern is, on almost every snap, the point of attack. But the combination of the nose tackle and the end splitting double teams throws off the timing of the designed run, preventing Asiata from hitting the hole in adequate time.

Minnesota’s issues here are simple — poor schematics and even worse technique from the offensive linemen. Adding bodies to the box only makes a defense’s job easier, and when players don’t execute blocks, stopping the run is a given outcome.

Play No. 2

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  • 3rd and 1 at MIN 44
  • (13:43 – 4th) (No Huddle, Shotgun) M.Asiata up the middle to MIN 43 for -1 yards (W.Compton; D.Whitner)

Again, Bowen broke down this play at ESPN, beautifully explaining the numbers game that dictates success (or failure) in the running game.

[quote_box_center]”What you’re banking on there is, you’re going to get a six-man box. You’re hoping it’s going to be 6-on-6, but they’re outnumbered because Washington doesn’t buy into it. They’re not playing the zone coverage. They’re playing downhill, and they’re rolling the safety to the tight end side of the formation. It’s almost like a run blitz, and it might be — I’m not in their meeting room — but this could be a ‘single dog’ blitz. The center and the guard are working on their original combo block; they’re going to combo inside on the defensive tackle, and the center’s going to work off to the linebacker. But the Redskins run this stunt and the center’s already past.”[/quote_box_center]

Unpacking that, the Vikings fail before the ball is even snapped. The Redskins run a stunt to counter the combo block from the center and right guard. Washington’s nose tackle, lined up in an Under 1-technique and shaded to the open side of the formation, crashes to the opposite A-gap. This negates any kind of double-team from the two offensive lineman and puts the right guard, in particular, in a disadvantageous position.

By the time Fusco reaches the center, his shoulders are completely turned and his weight fully committed to the down block. This allows the linebacker to loop through the B-gap and once again disrupt the timing of Minnesota’s designed run. His pressure, combined with the failure of Jake Long to secure the back side, puts Asiata in a lose-lose situation. He bounces to the outside but is met by the safety, who easily brings the running back down for a loss.

Adrian Peterson may have bounced this for a longer gain, but the current Vikings don’t have that luxury. And although the offense starts with a disadvantage, adjustments at the line of scrimmage would’ve made the difference between a loss and a chunk gain from Asiata. Had Fusco recognized the stunt sooner, he may have walled off the B-gap and sprung his running back lose. Still, hindsight is a perfect 20/20, and these are mistakes corrected in the film room each week.

A multitude of issues, from poor technique to schematic errors and non-existent communication, give the Vikings one of the least effective rushing attacks in the league. As Chris Tomasson points out, the Vikings are averaging 2.7 yards rushing per carry, which is on pace to be the worst in the NFL since the Patriots averaged less than three in 1994.

An offense that can’t rush the football isn’t dead in the water, but an offense that can’t convert in short-yardage situations is doomed. Like many Vikings fans, I’m searching for answers, and while I think the fix is mostly mental, the turnover along the offensive line is enough to convince me these problems won’t disappear any time soon.

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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  1. Guts, Denial, Reality. To keep running on 3rd and 1 is a nod to Gut check and denial of ones past. What we need is reality. Maybe try running on 2nd and sometimes, but on 3rd of fourth we need to pass it every time. Maybe set like a run but pass it. We need to do what will give us a best chance to succeed and with this line running ain’t it.

  2. Why not just run the wildcat in these situations? I don’t know the stats on those plays…but from what I remember it ain’t bad. Hell, it couldn’t hurt.

  3. Watching Matt Asiata try to gain one yard for a first down is kinda like getting locked out of the bathroom while waiting for that anti-diarrhea medication to finally kick in.

    No matter the result, you still end up sh*tting in your pants.