When you witness a breakdown between a defensive-minded head coach and his offensive coordinator, it’s typically because the coordinator isn’t emphasizing the run or putting the offense in a situation in which it will minimize mistakes and allow the defense to set the tempo. It’s one of the more tired clichés in football—and both head coach and coordinator are usually wrong, refusing to consider the issue from another perspective.
That doesn’t seem to be the case in Minnesota where Mike Zimmer—having relieved offensive coordinator John DeFilippo of his duties after an atrocious 21–7 loss against the Seahawks on Monday Night Football last week—made no secret about the kind of system he wanted. He handed the call sheet over to long-time lieutenant Kevin Stefanski despite Stefanski never having called plays in an NFL regular season game before. The directive? Run the ball.
The result? A 41–17 win over the Miami Dolphins, in which Dalvin Cook rushed 19 times for 136 yards and his first two rushing scores of the season, averaging more than seven yards per carry. Latavius Murray also netted 15 carries for 68 yards and a score.
The Dolphins are one of the worst teams against the run in the NFL, surrendering nearly 140 yards per game. Maybe it’s just good timing for Zimmer, whose desire for a more compact offense meshed well with the deficiencies of their opponent. In three games against the Bears, Saints and Rams this season—New Orleans and Chicago are first and second, respectively, against the run—the Vikings rushed for 161 total yards, or 59 fewer than they did against the Dolphins on Sunday.
But let’s say they truly corrected an inefficiency in their running game on Sunday. Imagine if a relatively fresh Cook and Murray could be set loose amid a playoff field stuffed with earth-shattering offenses, whose only Achilles heel may be the kind of opponent who keeps the ball for longer? The Vikings kept the ball for 33:16 on Sunday.
What if, beyond getting the offense to look the way he wants it to, Zimmer can at least bolster the running game by working against the tendencies the Vikings have amassed all season? Consider the following: According to NFL Game Stats and Information, the Vikings threw the ball 61.5% of the time on first-and-10 this year with DeFilippo. Here’s what the team’s first 11 first-and-10’s looked like on Sunday, before the score ballooned to a 21-point Vikings lead:
1. Run left
2. Run left
3. Run right
4. Run middle
5. Run middle
6. Run left
7. Pass right
8. Run right
9. Pass left
10. Run left
11. Run left
That’s 18.1% of their opening first-and-10s utilizing the pass. A little deeper? The Vikings ran a majority of their running plays up the middle this season (80), and just 36 to the left side despite gaining more than five yards per carry in runs to the left this season (the seventh-best mark in the NFL).
We’ve spent all season believing that the Vikings’ offense is far better than what they’ve displayed on paper. How would it change your perception of the NFC playoff race if they finally figured out a way to meet their potential?