Don’t Forget the Vikings Running Game

Do the Vikings Really Have an Expendable Running Back?
Alexander Mattison and Dalvin Cook

The Vikings hired an offensive-minded head coach in Kevin O’Connell. He comes from the Sean McVay coaching staff and coordinated a pass-heavy offense last season. Fans are excited about the outlook to see the purple team throwing more in the upcoming season than in recent years.

Star receiver Justin Jefferson recently said, “Our offensive style, it’s not a run-first offense anymore.”

It makes sense to throw the football. Quarterback Cousins played at a high level in 2021, and the receivers Jefferson and Thielen are a problem for defenses. The Vikings ranked 18th in passing attempts and 10th in rushes in the last two seasons. A more aggressive play-calling on offense is necessary after eight years of conservative playing style in the Mike Zimmer era.

However, the Vikings should still aim to run the ball at an above-average rate for various reasons.

Dalvin Cook

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Jun 7, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (4) and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Cook had a so-called ‘down year’ in 2021. He still racked up stats better than most. The 1,159 rushing yards ranked him 5th in the season, despite missing four games. He did all of that even with a sore ankle for most of the year and therefore didn’t look as dynamic as in the years prior. Since 2019, he’s second, only trailing Derrick Henry, in the most rushing yards and touchdowns in the NFL.

He’s one of the elite running backs in the NFL when healthy and should be used a lot on offense. If Dalvin touches the ball, good things will happen. The issue with the play calling wasn’t the ratio of calling runs and passes. It was the situation. In some cases, little kids could predict the play call. Better timing in the calls is what fans expect from O’Connell.

Cook was one of the most efficient runners in 2020. His 0.81 yards per run over expected ranked him among the elite backs in football. Recently Cook made comments that he is ready for a significant workload.

Run Blocking

The Vikings’ offensive lines in the last decade struggled to protect the quarterback. However, in run blocking, they were solid. Especially the interior line has been better at run blocking than pass protection. In Run Blocking Win Rate, the unit ranked 9th per ESPN with 71%. The big guys up front have their strength in the running game, so the team should continue to use it.

Not only is the line blocking in the running game, the tight ends, and the fullback. C.J. Ham are excellent at creating holes for Cook.

The tight ends are pretty good at run blocking as well. The starter Irv Smith is a capable blocker. But the true assets in that regard are behind him on the depth chart. Ben Ellefson and Johnny Mundt are exceptional blocking tight ends and can make a difference.

Play Action

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Sep 27, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) hands the ball off to Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Cousins is best known as a play-action assassin. His stats on those plays are off the charts, and the Vikings should continue to use a heavy dose of it. For it to work, the purple team must regularly run the football with consistent success, so the defenders must focus on the run. On play-action since 2019, Cousins averages almost 10 yards per attempt (9.97) and has thrown for 33 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. His passer rating is a ridiculous 122.4.

Last season, the Vikings’ offensive staff didn’t call nearly enough PA passes. The goal in 2022 should still be a healthy mix of rushing and passing with better timing than in 2021. Play-action should still play a big role.

Fans shouldn’t expect the new staff to stop running the football. A run on second down is not a cause to get mad. Neither is a run on 3rd and long. Not the percentages of runs are the stat to watch, but the efficiency on the runs. As long as it’s working, the Vikings should definitely rank at least average in running percentage. That per se is not a bad thing. Patience is vital for the offense to find its identity, but don’t expect the team to throw the ball 40 times a game.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. He chose the Vikings as his favorite team, despite Christian Ponder being the quarterback at the time. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt

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