Dec 20, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs the ball against Chicago Bears defending back Kyle Fuller (23) in the fourth quarter at US Bank Stadium. Mandatory credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Over a week ago, we looked beyond the box score and analyzed the Minnesota Vikings passing game of 2020. This week I decided to dig deeper again and look at Vikings running attack, using the premium stats available at Pro Football Focus. The unit ranked fifth in the league in 2020, helping to once again establish the offensive identity that head coach Mike Zimmer coveted.
Four teams ranked above Minnesota in total in 2020 are rushing into 2020, but for this exercise, we’re excluding the Ravens and Patriots. Their offensive game plans relied on mobile quarterbacks to work consistently, and the Vikings won’t this year. Instead, we’ll compare Minnesota to the Titans (second rushing offensive) and the Browns (third) because they use more conventional rushing attacks.
Left side runs
For starters, we’ll look at the slopes on the left that went outside the tight end. The Vikings found most of their production on these runs. 71 attempts went for 369 yards (most yardage from any direction) and four touchdowns (second most from all directions). Minnesota enjoyed a healthy average of 5.2 yards per carry on these runs. They also broke off 12 runs over 10 yards, the second-highest in any direction.
The Vikings’ left runs were better than the Titans, who ran 71 times for 286 yards and four scores. However, there is still room for improvement here as they were outdone by the Browns. Cleveland ran in this direction 70 times for 442 yards (6.3 ypc) and four touchdowns.
Runs that went off-tackle to the left were a different story. Probably due to the fact that these runs relied heavily on left tackle Riley Reiff and left guard Dakota Dozier, the Vikings struggled to achieve success in this direction. Minnesota ran 33 times for just 106 yards (3.2 ypc) and one touchdown. Most amazingly, the Vikings gained 108 yards on contact on these runs. This is a testament to Dalvin Cook’s game-making ability.
Tennessee, on the other hand, was more efficient in this direction than any other. They ran 32 times for 188 yards (5.9 ypc) and one touchdown. Cleveland wasn’t as dominant, but still produced 172 yards on 34 carries (5.1 ypc) and two touchdowns. Minnesota may not see improvement on the left tackle with Rashod Hill and rookie Christian Darrisaw who came on after Reiff left for Cincinnati. However, they should play much better with the left hat as Ezra Cleveland moves to the spot after spending 2020 on the right side of the line. The Vikings can’t get much worse in this direction in 2021, so let’s expect at least a modest improvement.
Minnesota’s most efficient runs came blindsided on the left. They ran 44 times for 279 yards (6.3 ypc) and three touchdowns. This was also the longest run of the season for the team, as Cook took a 70-yard run home against the Lions in Week 9. Even without the run, the Vikings still averaged 4.8 yards per try on the season. The Titans ran 38 times for 188 yards (4.9 ypc) for one touchdown in this direction, while Cleveland ran 39 times for 185 yards (4.7 ypc) and one touchdown.
Walks to the middle
More than a third of Minnesota’s touchdowns came on points that went between their guards. On runs to center left, the Vikings ran 71 times for 317 yards (4.5 ypc) and five touchdowns. The Titans ran 72 times for 292 yards (4.1 ypc) and two scores in this direction. Cleveland ran 56 times for 219 yards (3.9 ypc) and no touchdowns.
Center right was just as good for Minnesota. They scored two touchdowns on 69 carries for 364 yards (5.3 ypc). This was again better than both the Titans and the Browns. Tennessee found more success in this direction, running 69 times for 331 yards (4.8 ypc) and a touchdown. Cleveland wasn’t much better running right, rushing 73 times for 271 yards (3.7 ypc) and two scores.
Still, the center-right is one of the few places Minnesota could still see improvements in 2021. This is one of two directions Dalvin Cook encountered that accounted for less than 70 percent of the team’s total distance . His 229 yards on 47 carries (4.9 ypc) accounted for just 63 percent of the team’s production in this direction. In fact, as a team, the Vikings ran 364 yards on 69 carries (5.3 ypc), meaning Cook was actually less effective this way than the rest of the team. This is still nitpicking though, as Cook’s numbers are still great here. Backup Alexander Mattison was efficient here too, running 16 times for 81 yards (5.1 ypc) and scoring both touchdowns in this direction.
Right side runs
Running to the right found more success as the season progressed. For the first five weeks, the Vikings started Pat Elflein as right guard for one game and Dru Samia for the next four. This turned out to be a disaster until rookie tackle turnguard Ezra Cleveland took over. He helped stabilize the spot for the rest of the year when the Vikings found room to run that way.
When he ran out of right guard, Minnesota ran 40 times for 166 yards (4.2 ypc). This was the only direction on conventional runs where they didn’t score touchdowns. In fact, this was Cook’s most inefficient direction. He ran for 100 yards on 28 carries (3.6 ypc). This accounted for just 60 percent of the team’s rushing total. This, like runs to centre-right, can probably be expected to improve in 2021 with the emergence of right-wing guard Oli Udoh taking over.
The Titans, meanwhile, ran 66 times for 321 yards (4.9 ypc) and one score in this direction. Cleveland was even better, running 50 times for 318 yards (6.4 ypc) and two touchdowns.
Runs off-tackle to the right (RT) were dominated by Cook. He accounted for 84 percent of the distance in this direction (his highest of all runs). As a team, the Vikings ran 52 times for 236 yards (4.5 ypc) and a touchdown, and Cook had 28 of these carries for 199 yards (5.2 ypc) and the touchdown. Still, this doesn’t compare to the Titans. They ran 50 times for 312 yards (6.2 ypc) and two touchdowns. The Browns also found great success here, with 47 runs for 247 yards (5.3 ypc) and three scores.
Finally, on runs to the outside of the tight end, the Vikings took out yardage again. Behind exceptional right tackle Brian O’Neill, Minnesota ran 54 times for 281 yards (5.2 ypc) and three touchdowns. Cook forced 13 missed tackles this way, most of every direction he ran.
Again, this pales in comparison to Tennessee. Somehow they ran 75 times for 571 yards (7.1 ypc) and nine touchdowns. Cleveland had a more modest total running to the right, rushing 68 times for 276 yards (4.1 ypc) and four touchdowns.
The bag of tricks
One thing fans hope to see more of now that Klint Kubiak has taken over as the offensive coordinator job is for more creativity. This can be in the form of moves, jet sweeps and end-arounds in the run game. In 2020, the Vikings played only five of these plays. Two jet sweeps combined for 17 yards and three end-arounds resulted in 13 yards. In total, the team only caught one first deficit of these actions.
Tennessee actually conducted fewer such plays, with three jet sweeps (one of which resulted in a touchdown) resulting in one touchdown. They rely on a perhaps even more conservative approach than the Vikings. Cleveland performed seven of these plays, but scored two touchdowns. These also expanded into the passing game, as they used end-arounds and other trick plays to get passes from the likes of Jarvis Landry.
With teams looking for ways to stop Cook and Justin Jefferson, the Vikings would be wise to get creative in their approach to bringing football to these playmakers. Other times, they’ve been able to overwhelm teams by using rookies Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Kene Nwangwu on jet sweeps, while all eyes are on the best playmakers.
What this means for 2021
Like the pass game, the Vikings have an explosive but flawed running game heading into 2021. Dalvin Cook is a special back, and improving off-tackle to the left and off-guard to the right can make for an even more full-blown rush attack forward. Implementing jet sweeps and end-arounds can also help the whole attack, and hopefully the youthful Klint Kubiak can embrace this aspect of the game more than his father. The Vikings go as far as their running game takes them. It’s time they scoured every road to make sure this happens every week.