The most obvious change with the Vikings offense from last year to this year under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and new quarterback Kirk Cousins has been a shift away from a running-based attack to a passing-based attack.
A year ago, with Pat Shurmur calling plays and Case Keenum primarily under center, the Vikings had the second-most rushing attempts (501) of any team in the NFL while ranking just 21st in pass attempts (527).
Through seven games so far this season, it’s been pretty much the complete opposite. The Vikings rank No. 3 in pass attempts with 300 already this season while ranking No. 24 in rushing attempts with 152. What was once close to an even split has become almost a 2 to 1 ratio of passes to runs.
Saying this is a source of tension between head coach Mike Zimmer and DeFilippo would be going too far, but Zimmer indicated in his postgame comments after Sunday’s win over the Jets — when the Vikings passed 40 times and ran 24 times but benefited from some late-game runs by Latavius Murray — that he would prefer more of a balance.
“Sometimes we get impatient and we have to control the clock and control the running game. (In the) first half we didn’t really stick with it at times again,” Zimmer said.
From this, though, a relevant question emerges: Is Zimmer correct or is the mentality of establishing the run the product of an old-school sentiment that doesn’t apply in the modern NFL?
Well, first things first. The Vikings went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game last season with balance. Zimmer is a defensive-minded coach, and those coaches tend to value long drives, ball control and safer offensive schemes that don’t put defenses in bad field position.
And it should also be pointed out that game situations have dictated some of the Vikings’ imbalance. They were playing from behind against the Packers, Rams and Bills for much of those games and theoretically needed to score more quickly through the air.
Cousins alluded to that Wednesday when he was asked if he expected to be throwing the ball so much when he joined the Vikings, basically saying he had no set expectations and that each game is different.
The push-pull is that the pass-happy Vikings have scored more points this season, averaging 25.3 points through seven weeks after averaging 23.9 per game last season. This year’s mark would be even better without six missed field goals and a better red zone conversion percentage.
But they’ve also turned the ball over nine times already (on pace for 21 this season) after turning it over just 14 times last season. They rank No. 24 in plays per drive and No. 28 in average drive time after being in the top 10 in both categories last season.
That said, both of those last stat categories are on thin margins. Does holding the ball for an extra 20 seconds per drive (difference between last year and this year) really make that much of a ball-control difference or benefit the defense more than a increasingly potent offense does?
I’d say running the ball in the NFL these days is still important (particularly in keeping pressure off Cousins), and I imagine DeFilippo is sincere when he says he wants to run the ball effectively.
But if forced to choose between balance and explosiveness I’d choose the latter. In a lot of cases, I’d say a running game is a want instead of a need in the modern NFL.
On that last point, I wonder if the head coach and offensive coordinator agree.