Is the Vikings Run Game a Kevin O’Connell Problem?
This far into the 2023 NFL regular season, we can start to make some fair assessments about the team on the field. At this point, it is a fair assessment to suggest that the Vikings running game is a problem. The question becomes your hypothetical chicken or the egg theory, though.
Is the Vikings Run Game a Kevin O’Connell Problem?
When the Minnesota Vikings decided to let Dalvin Cook walk out the door this offseason, they knew what they were doing. He had made a name for himself with the franchise and was certainly beloved, but there was substantial tread on the tires, and you can’t replace the human version. While he hasn’t been given much opportunity with the New York Jets, the usage and production there suggest that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was justified in his decision.
What may be somewhat problematic is that the Vikings had no real contingency plan behind Cook. We have seen the NFL shift away from paying running backs, and for good reason, but Minnesota did even less than that. Bringing back Alexander Mattison on a reduced deal, and as their starting back, he would lead an inexperienced group with little sustained success.
The Vikings seemed to hedge their own bet before the season started when they brought in veteran Myles Gaskin, and they doubled down on the opportunity to supplement the position by trading for Cam Akers. There was some visible evidence that Mattison alone wouldn’t cut it, but I’m not sure it could have been predicted to be this bad.
Through 11 games, all Vikings rushing attempts have added up to 3.9 yards per carry and tally just over 1,000 yards in total. It wasn’t until Week 8 that the Vikings got their first rushing touchdown, and it came from Akers, a guy who wasn’t even on the original roster. Not long after, filling in for the injured Kirk Cousins, Josh Dobbs punched in two rushing touchdowns, and the leading backfield scorer was the new mobile quarterback.
As things stand currently, the Vikings’ yards per attempt rank 27th in the league and their total yardage comes in at 28th. To say it has been bad would be putting it lightly. Despite being elevated to a starting role, Mattison has produced a career-worst 3.7 yards per carry, and despite the substantial increase in production, he has averaged less than 14 yards per game over his career-best.
After losing Akers for the season to the same Achilles injury he had previously suffered, Minnesota saw their best-looking runner hit injured reserve. This gave additional opportunity to youngster Ty Chandler, and he has done well with the runway so far. Chandler is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, a full yard-plus above where Mattison is at, and he also adds the dynamic ability as a receiver out of the backfield.
While a changing of the guard hasn’t been granted to Chandler, it is worth wondering if the running game, or lack thereof, may fall somewhat on the shoulders of head coach Kevin O’Connell. The front office has constructed a revamped offensive line that rates well regarding run blocking, albeit they have left plenty to be desired this year, but the group hasn’t been put in many of those scenarios. Minnesota’s attempts rank just 25th in the league, which could be a byproduct of lacking production or a reflection of having the third-best passing offense by yardage.
For O’Connell’s tendencies, we need to look beyond just this one year and his lack of weapons. Despite dealing with a declining Cook in 2022, he was still a traditional lead back. The attempts checked in at just 28th in the league, however, and the yardage was only a spot better. It might be unfair to compare a younger Cook to what O’Connell had to work with, but the 2020 Vikings found themselves 14th in passing yardage while also being 5th in rushing yardage and 4th in yards per attempt.
The last time Minnesota had an excellent running game, Cook was ripping off 5.0 yards per attempt, while Mattison was filling in with 4.5 yards per attempt on his own. Both backups, Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah, surpassed 5.0 yards per attempt, and the stable was a complete package despite a losing record. A push to throw the ball makes sense as progressive offenses go, but maybe the running game has been left too far in the rearview mirror.
Right now, there isn’t much change for the Vikings to make. Justin Jefferson will eventually return, and the passing game is Minnesota’s bread and butter, with both T.J. Hockenson and rookie Jordan Addison as high-quality options. Beyond just running Dobbs, though, getting Chandler lead-level touches and finding a way to rejuvenate Mattison is a must. The Vikings tallied 175 yards on the ground against the Broncos on Sunday night, but the backup did most of the talking.
O’Connell needs to avoid going full-on Mike Zimmer for Minnesota, but sprinkling in the ground game with his best option should admittedly take place a bit more often.
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Ted Schwerzler is a blogger from the Twin Cities that is focused on all things Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. He’s active on Twitter and writes weekly for Twins Daily. As a former college athlete and avid sports fan, covering our pro teams with a passion has always seemed like such a natural outlet.