How the Vikings Can Boost Their Run Game

Sep 13, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison (25) rushes with the ball in the second half against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

During this offseason, the two prominent men in Minnesota — Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell — have consistently talked about the Vikings run game.

How the Vikings Can Boost Their Run Game

So too, has offensive coordinator Wes Phillips, leaving the impression that it is an area of serious focus going into this season. The question is how the Vikings boost their run game. Is it by personnel or scheme? The answer, like most things, is improving in all areas.

Releasing Dalvin Cook

Can Boost Their
Dec 17, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (4) looks on before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Of course, looking in from the outside, the release of Dalvin Cook seems a strange way to try and improve your run game. The Florida man had been in Minnesota for six seasons since being drafted by the Vikings in 2017 and has been one of the best running backs in the league in that timeframe. A reputation he garnered with four straight 1000-yard rushing seasons, peaking with 1557 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in 2020.

There have been injury problems, though, and 2022 was the first time Cook managed to play in every game. He did so wearing a harness to protect an injured shoulder, which he had surgery on during the offseason. Cook is an offensive playmaker that can hit the “home run” big play at any moment. The problem is he was struggling to gain the hard yards, and too many Vikings running plays were going nowhere. Does that change post-surgery for Cook? Perhaps, but with $14 million due and equally big cap hits the next two years, the Vikings decided to move on.

The How

With Cook gone, let’s look at how the Vikings boost their run game. Alexander Mattison will be the lead back after serving four seasons as Cook’s understudy. Mattison is still young, turning 25 this June, and hasn’t been run into the ground, so there should be plenty of tread left on the tires. Can he shoulder the workload of a workhorse back, or will it be more of a running back by committee with Ty Chander, Kene Nwangwu, and DeWayne McBride chipping in?

Oct 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison (2) celebrates a first down against the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

I believe Mattison will shoulder most of the workload, to begin with; how involved the other three are will depend on if they seize the opportunities presented to them. It’s not just down to the running back to get the running game going, the offensive scheme, play calling, and blocking are just as important. A couple of moves the Vikings have made this offseason will help.

Firstly, Minnesota signed fullback C.J. Ham to a 2-year contract extension. Ham looked to be a candidate to be released as part of the Vikings youth movement. The soon to be 30 year old saw his role decrease from previous years in O’Connell’s first season in charge. He played on just 15% of offensive snaps in 2022, compared to between 33% and 40% over the previous three seasons. The extension and talk of the need for an improved run game suggest at least a modest increase in playing time for the Minnesota native.

One of the three most notable free agent signings the Vikings made being a tight end raised a few eyebrows, especially following the mid-season trade for T.J. Hockenson. It was an early sign of the Vikings determination to get their running game going. Josh Oliver will have a role to play as a pass catcher, but he isn’t going to threaten Hockenson’s position as TE1. Oliver has built a reputation as an excellent blocking tight end during his three seasons in the league; however, he didn’t fulfill the promise he showed as a pass catcher in college at either Jacksonville or Baltimore.

Why the Passing Game Needs Help

The Vikings became a pass-first offense when O’Connell came through the door. It’s clear from watching the Vikings and everything said by the men in charge that Jefferson is the focal point of the Vikings offense. That led to opposing teams doing everything possible to shut down the Vikings superstar wide receiver. When teams do that, the other playmakers need to punish teams. That didn’t happen often enough last season.

Mar 1, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell speaks to the press at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings started trying to solve that problem when trading for Hockenson. His success coming in part way through the season is an exciting prospect; now we get to see him fully integrated into the team with a full preseason of preparation. The next step was to draft a WR in the first round of this year’s draft. Jordan Addison joins the team as Adam Thielen departs. Thielen was one of the best receivers around in his prime, but he’s at the back end of his career. Minnesota will hope Addison can bring added explosiveness to the offense and ask questions of opponents and whether they want to sell out on stopping Jefferson.

The other way to stop teams from selling out to stop Jefferson is with a consistently effective run game. Last year the Vikings were anything but consistent when running the ball; it was boom or bust. There might not be as much “boom” without Cook, but if the Vikings can considerably lower the “bust,” it will be a worthwhile trade-off. Consistently moving the chains and putting the offense in favorable positions is always essential. The last place an offense wants to be is 3rd, and long after, two running plays went nowhere, something that seemed to happen with regularity last season.

The Vikings have many tools to be a very good offense. With a bit of fine-tuning, a better run game, and improvement from the interior offense line — which is always a problem — Minnesota can have one of the league’s best offenses in 2023.