EAGAN — Have you ever tried to get the thermostat right in a cheap hotel? Somehow 72 degrees is an ice palace and 73 degrees is the Mojave desert.
That’s like the relationship between Minnesota Vikings play callers and the run-pass ratio during Kirk Cousins’ time in Minnesota.
Who didn’t have flashbacks from 2018 Monday night, where Mike Zimmer’s head turned into a roasted red pepper as offensive coordinator John DeFilippo sent another quick pass?
But Zimmer was justified the following season when the Vikings made the playoffs behind sixth-highest rushing and 23rd-passing offense in total yards.
Or was it him? The Dalvin Cook-centric offensive frustrated receiver Stefon Diggs. He was traded to Buffalo, where he caught 127 passes and led his team to the AFC title game the following season.
There’s no denying that Gary Kubiak’s offense returned to the well, finishing 27th in pass attempts and eighth in run calls in 2020. But the Vikings missed the postseason on the back of a struggling defense. Would they have kept up with more passes?
Maybe. But in 2021, a series of close games and a difficult running game that finished 28th in expected added points forced the Vikings to throw the ball more. They finished the year 11th in trials and 10th in the EPA.
Oh yeah, more of that. Turn up the temporary heat.
In week 1 this idea looked pretty good.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell made 19 passes in 32 games en route to taking a 17-0 lead at halftime against the Green Bay Packers. Justin Jefferson went into the locker room at the break with the most yards in a half in team history.
The overall run-pass ratio came back to earth because the Vikings ran for time in the second half, but stated that this is a purple passing team.
“I remember CJ Ham telling me we were pretty even from run to pass and I said well when you have a lead you go into what’s called ‘four minute mode’ where you try letting the clock tick down, which allows you to be balanced because you’re running, running, running,” Cousins said.
They weren’t run, run, run during Monday night’s 24-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Cousins threw 46 passes and Cook gained 17 yards on six carries. Cook has only been held for under 20 yards four times and the Vikings are 0-4 in those games.
But the Vikings played from behind, right? Is this the opposite of that silly statistic, “If Team X rushes 100 yards, they have an 80% win rate”?
Not exactly. The Vikings came out of the half against the Eagles with a drive that gave them a chance to take the score to 10 points – very manageable for a half in our 2022 football year. O’Connell called just two runs on the drive and Cousins threw an interception in the red zone. The next drive, which started after a blocked punt at the Philly 30, also ended in an interception. The next drive started early in the fourth quarter and the Vikings chose and punted 10 consecutive wasted passes. No sooner said than done, while the game was still within reach in the second half, the Vikings played three times.
“In the second half we – including myself – put on a little pressure and tried to make up a lot in a hurry,” said O’Connell on Wednesday.
Imagine the last guy’s face.
“If we’re able to get a three on some of those possessions, then you really talk about it being a one-possession game, possibly late in the game – which we didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to do,” said O ‘Connell continued. “Looking back, did we have to get everything back at once? Did we have to try to get that result quickly, or did we just have to play smart and somehow get it right?
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When the Vikings lost sight of their Pro Bowl running back, they also didn’t use the most dangerous weapon they have: play-action.
There are many different studies of game action, but here’s the bottom line: When Cook has beaten teams — including the Eagles — in the past, they’ve been forced to pay attention. It’s no coincidence that Cousins has been in the top 5 in the QB rankings with play-action for the past five years.
To get the Eagles to care about the run, Cook really needed to be successful. Could he have blasted Philly’s strong defensive line the way they played Monday night? Maybe not. But the Vikings won’t often win when Cousins has five play-action tries (per PFF).
“Some personnel things sort of dictated us … some of the running selection and we’ll keep working to make sure we touch him,” O’Connell said. “How do we package games so as not to be deterred from governing football? And I think that will be the key for us to move forward.”
Okay, more runs, yes, that makes sense.
Or wait a minute now. Are we back in the desert? Is it 73 or 72 degrees? What about the Cooper Kupp Offensive?
There’s another factor at play: PFF’s Eric Eager tweeted evidence from the league’s tracking data suggesting Cooks “Top speed above expectation” sank.
Blocking is also important. Every Vikings offensive lineman except Brian O’Neill was underrated by PFF in run-blocking against Philadelphia.
But all hope isn’t lost for a balanced offense that judiciously plays to Cousins’ strengths as a play-action quarterback, leaning into the pass and scaring opposing defenses with the game in progress.
In two weeks, the Detroit Lions, the Vikings’ closest opponents, have given up 304 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns.
And O’Connell reflects on the run-pass ratio and the way he managed the game as a play caller.
“Was I consistent with how we want to play from an offensive philosophy standpoint, or did I allow myself to apply a little pressure?” said O’Connell. “Was the descent and the distance the right timing? Have I sometimes overwhelmed us?”
Not only do the Vikings have to find the right Fahrenheit for the game in progress, they also have to find other weapons. In two games, Cousins has thrown 78 passes and just 17 went to Adam Thielen and KJ Osborn.
“It’s kind of connected and it’s amazing how if you’re efficient in one area, it can help the other areas take off,” Cousins said.
As the Vikings’ performance against the Lions picks up, they have a chance to string some victories together with a favorable game plan that includes New Orleans in London and Chicago at home. Sunday’s game can set the tone for this team recovering from a night of choking running play and Cousins’ drop-back pass. And it can drown out the last guy’s “run the ball more” echoes – for now.
Related: After Eagles loss, Thielen notes coaches didn’t yell
See also: Vikings need to worry about Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift