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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings must improve on third downs, red zone to compete with Saints

By Matthew Coller

When Sunday’s game wrapped up, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was conflicted.

It’s hard to complain about a 20-point road win in which the offense produces 37 points, but he also realized that the Vikings did not effectively move the ball throughout the game, averaging just 5.6 yards per pass play and going 2-for-15 on third down and 1-for-3 in the red zone.

“All over the map,” Cousins said after the win. “A lot of positives. I think any time you score 37 points on the road, you’re doing something right but there were a lot of places that weren’t good enough and when you have special teams giving you great field position and a defense creating turnovers and getting you the ball back then it probably makes it look better than it really was.”

The Vikings needed three scores from more than 30 yards away from the end zone. While Cousins has proven to be outstanding at dropping deep balls into the basket and the Vikings have two of the best deep receivers in the game, it’s difficult to rely on bombs and 30-plus yard touchdown runs like the one they got from Latavius Murray.

The question is whether we can chalk up Sunday’s rough patches to things like the road environment and wind or if there are long-term concerns to come out of the offense’s issues at MetLife Stadium. Let’s have a look…

We’ll start with the third downs.

One of the biggest issues in Sunday’s game was that 11 of the 15 third downs required eight or more yards for a first down. League wide, third downs of more than eight yards are only converted 23.1 percent of the time (per Pro-Football Reference).

Overall the Vikings have the fifth most third down situations with more than eight yards to go and have converted 20.1 percent (9-for-43) while only averaging 3.4 yards per play, good for 29th in the NFL.

The Jets were particularly good at taking away the Vikings’ best weapons on third-and long.

In the example below, the Vikings run a common play around the NFL in which every receiver runs a hitch route of some type to the sticks. The receivers are spread out with the hope of creating space and throwing lanes for Cousins. But the Jets had a counter to this: double team. In a two-deep safety look, both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs had two defensive backs on them when they went into their breaks.

Last week against Arizona, Cousins effectively rolled out of the pocket and made a play off script to Diggs for a first down. On this play, he might have been able to find Diggs or Laquon Treadwell breaking back in his direction while on the move, but he elected to throw the ball away. That decision is hard to criticize considering the shape of the game.

On another third-and-long situation, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo dialed up another bread-and-butter concept around the league, slant-drag. Against a single deep safety and off-man coverage, Diggs runs a slant while tight end Kyle Rudolph runs a drag route underneath.

The middle of the field is there for the taking, but Cousins is late on the throw. If he makes the delivery on Diggs’ break, he likely gains a first down.

A similar issue showed up in the red zone on a clever twist to slant-drag by DeFilippo.

This time, Diggs goes in motion, which gives Cousins an indication of whether the coverage is going to be man or zone. Once he realizes the Jets are in zone, he understands that the running back will draw the attention of the nickel corner and Thielen will be able to find space in the end zone. Again the throw comes a tick late.

Part of the solution here might simply be more reps. While Cousins has clearly been able to take advantage of Thielen and Diggs’ talents, that doesn’t mean they are perfectly in sync on every route all the time.

If the Vikings continue to have troubles with anticipation throws in the red zone, they may turn to the run game more often. The average NFL team runs 44 percent of the time inside the opponent’s 20 (per Pro-Football Reference) whereas the Vikings have run 29 percent of red zone plays.

Creating play-action opportunities in the red zone is key. With play-action this season, Cousins completes 76.6 percent of his passes at 8.6 yards per attempt. Overall Cousins is 17th in percentage of plays with play-action among QBs with more than 200 drop backs.

Against the Saints the Vikings can’t leave points on the board or set themselves up with third-and-long situations. New Orleans is No. 2 in the NFL in points per game and sixth in yards per play. Zimmer acknowledged that Drew Brees is quite a different challenge from rookies Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold, who did not take advantage of the Vikings’ mistakes.

One of the areas the Vikings could see instant improvement is the passing game to running backs. Last year they combined for 84 receptions by running backs. This year they have 32 through seven weeks — nine of which belonged to Dalvin Cook. If Cook returns from a hamstring injury, he provides a weapon in the short pass and screen game that could set up third-and-short situations and finish drives in the red zone.

The post Vikings must improve on third downs, red zone to compete with Saints appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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