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Bleacher Report – Vikings

What can the Vikings offense take away from struggles vs. Bears?

By Matthew Coller

Following a 25-20 loss to the Chicago Bears, the Minnesota Vikings are looking for answers on offense.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins said following the game that this week’s practices and preparation for the Green Bay Packers will have a “sense of urgency” now that the team is 5-4-1 and could put themselves in danger of falling out of the playoff race with a loss to the Pack.

The analytics website Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings’ offense 17th in DVOA, a stat that adjusts performances for score and strength of opponent. They are 15th in the passing game and 32nd in the rush. Minnesota sits 15th in points per game and 16th in yards per play. Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Points” stat places the Vikings’ offense 23rd in the NFL.

So across the board, there is very little evidence to suggest the Vikings belong in the conversation for the most dangerous offenses in the NFL. And with shortcomings on the offensive line, it doesn’t appear possible that the 2018 version of the Vikings’ offense will fully live up to expectations, but they will have opportunities.

Using DVOA, they face the 15th, 17th, 10th, 23rd and 30th ranked defenses before seeing Chicago (No. 1) again in Week 17.

What can the Vikings take from their struggles against an elite defense? Let’s have a look…

Play the numbers game in the run

Chicago completely dominated the Vikings up front, taking away any chance at establishing a run attack. All said and done, they finished with 22 yards rushing.

Against inferior teams like the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets, the Vikings had a good deal of success on the ground, but Chicago features two of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Naturally that played a role against the Vikings’ battered offensive line. However, there were opportunities missed for Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray to gain ground.

One of them came on the first drive, in which the Bears stuffed a third-and-1 handoff up the middle. Here is the play:

Something to notice is that the Vikings ran toward defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who ranks by Pro Football Focus as the second best defensive tackle in football behind only Aaron Donald.

On Sunday night alone, Hicks produced five run stops and five pressures. He also ran down Cook from behind on a screen pass.

But it isn’t just the fact that the Vikings ran toward Hicks that was the problem on the third-and-1 failure. It was also the numbers game. Have a look:

The Bears have five players lined up on the offensive left side of the hash and three on the right side, but Khalil Mack is set up all the way outside the opposite hash, essentially making it a five-on-five to Cousins’ right and three-on-two to his right.

If Chicago had an average defensive tackle, a five-on-five might be OK, but he can’t be slowed by a single offensive lineman. Neither can Mack, but he’s so far outside there is essentially a three-on-two on the offense’s left.

Later in the game, the Vikings do take advantage of their numbers edge in the box.

Cousins clearly checks before to play to a handoff to the far side of the field out of the shotgun. This time they run toward the three-on-two, even though Hicks is one of the two. Both center Pat Elflein and guard Mike Remmers get their hands on Hicks, slowing him enough for Cook to get outside and convert a third-and-3 for a first down.

Because the Vikings’ offense is working shorthanded at the guard position and playing a rookie at right tackle, they will have to focus on running only when they can get a numbers advantage. They simply won’t be able to beat teams man-for-man.

Chicago used some tactics like fake jet sweets and other types of misdirections to work their runs toward the stronger side.

Play-action to help protection, whether the run game is working or not

Despite the Vikings’ rushing attack being completely stifled from the outset, play-action was still a success when used against the Bears — though it was rarely used.

Here is an example in the third quarter of Cousins finding receiver Adam Thielen wide open and Mack being made irrelevant in the pass rush by a play-action play design.

Notice the linebacker following the line and Cook to the offenses’s left, giving Thielen the chance to run right past him into space. The defensive end’s responsibility is to work down the line, so he isn’t able to recover to pressure Cousins, who makes a terrific throw on the money to his top receiver.

Earlier in the game, the Vikings took a deep shot using play-action and a protection that involved seven blockers and only two receivers going downfield. It nearly turned into a game-changing play if not for an overthrow.

Cousins rolls away from Mack, which gives Diggs time for an outstanding double move, leaving the Bears defender in the dust.

With the Rams, Saints and Chiefs at the top of the NFL in play-action, it’s becoming more and more clear that the effectiveness of running games does not have much impact on play-action success. Cousins has been one of the NFL’s best play-action QBs over the past four years and with protection issues up front, play-action throws are one way to get Cousins extra time to throw.

Stick with Dalvin Cook as a receiver

Because of a hamstring issue, the Vikings haven’t had too many opportunities to fully experiment with their dynamic running back. He lined up at receiver with Latavius Murray at running back once against the Lions and earlier this year he caught at 24-yard pass against Green Bay as a receiver. The Vikings might opt to make it less of a rare occurrence after this solid route by Cook:

There’s nothing complex about it, but the Vikings get off coverage with outside leverage and run a five-yard out for a first down with Cook. He’s capable of doing things in the passing game that most running backs cannot and quick passing might be the best way to get the ball in his hands, much like the Bears use Tarik Cohen.

Go ahead and run, Kirk

Here’s somewhat of an odd stat, but it had relevance on Sunday night: Cousins has just four first downs rushing this season. Around the league, 23 QBs have more rushing first downs. On the first drive, the Vikings could have opted to QB sneak on third-and-1, but ran Murray instead. And then on this play later in the game, Cousins throws the ball to Stefon Diggs rather than walking to a first down on third-and-1.

We saw in Week 1 that Cousins has the ability to run when called upon. At one point on a third-and-long, the Bears sent a three-man rush and dropped everyone deep in coverage, almost daring Cousins to take off. He isn’t lacking in quickness or athleticism and could find his way to a few key third-down plays to keep drives going simply by taking off. Chicago certainly showed that with Mitch Trubisky.

The bottom line is: There are areas where the Vikings simply cannot get better because of their personnel. The O-line isn’t going to become the ’92 Cowboys and Cousins won’t suddenly have the pocket presence of Aaron Rodgers, but there may be small areas where the Vikings can squeak out a few more yards to keep drives going against the upcoming schedule of mediocre defenses.

The post What can the Vikings offense take away from struggles vs. Bears? appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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