No one is exactly sure why the Vikings' talented offense has repeatedly turned into a pumpkin in the second half of games this season, but it's a significant concern for a team that still believes it can rally and make the playoffs despite a 2-3 start.
"I don’t know if I've pinpointed it, but we’ve researched it an awful lot," Mike Zimmer said. "We went through every possession in the second half. We’ve gone through down and distance tendencies, first and possession, earned first downs, second down and long after a penalty, after a sack. I gave the [offensive] coaches a lot of projects to do this week on Monday."
Normally, the Vikings would wait until their bye week rolls around after this Sunday's game against the Panthers to do a self-scout. But on the offensive side of the ball, specifically regarding the second-half ineptitude, Zimmer said he didn't want to wait.
"I just felt like it was important to figure out what’s going on here," he said.
The numbers tell the story. Through five games, the Vikings' nine first-half touchdowns are tied for sixth-most in the league. All nine are passes from Kirk Cousins, who is tied for first in that department and ranks second in first-half passer rating. The Vikings rank third in first-half EPA per play and are also in the top eight in yards per play and total first downs prior to halftime. They've been both efficient and explosive early in games, especially through the air.
That all changes after the break. In the second half and overtime, the Vikings fall from third to 30th in EPA per play. They have a mere two second-half touchdowns, tied for the fewest in the league, and both of those came back in Week 1. Cousins' passer rating falls from 133.6 in the first half to 77.9 in the second, and the team's yards per play plummets to 25th. In the past four games, the offense has scored 18 second-half points on six field goals, an average of 4.5 points in four 30-minute spans.
The reasons for that significant downturn are difficult to identify. They've had second halves where they've been leading and second halves where they've been trailing, and they've played teams with a variety of different defensive schemes and approaches.
"We just need to execute," Cousins said. "We need to find a way in the second half to be more productive, to score touchdowns. And in the Seattle game, it was red zone [struggles], we would get down in the red zone but then we didn’t finish. Last week [against the Lions], it was a combination of factors and we didn’t do as well in that four-minute, trying to run the clock out. And the week before that it was again a combination of things. So we’ve just got to find a way to not only move the football, convert third downs, stay on the field, but then when we get down in the red zone, come away with a touchdown instead of kicking field goals."
At the beginning of games, offenses use specific scripts to plan out their opening drive or two, before the defense has time to react and adjust. That has worked quite well for Klint Kubiak and the Vikings. They scored on their first three possessions against the Lions last week, scored their lone points against the Browns on a first-drive touchdown, and also put seven points on the board on their opening possessions against the Seahawks and Cardinals.
Usually, that only works in the first quarter, because you know what looks you're going to get from the opposing defense, for the most part. But the Vikings are also going to try to script their initial possessions of the third quarter this week in an effort to switch things up.
"I think probably being a little bit more specific coming out of halftime, instead of saying, ‘Hey, these are the plays that we’re thinking about running,’ and going, ‘All right, here’s what we’re going to run,'" Zimmer said. "Here’s the first play, second play, third play, and we go from there."
Kubiak, the Vikings' first-year playcaller, was a big part of the self-assessment process that the offensive coaching staff did this week. He said they identified their strengths and weaknesses to find tendencies they can break and opportunities to improve in the second half of games.
"Down and distance, tendencies, after a sack, after a turnover, personnel tendencies, all those things," Kubiak said. "Plenty of things that we studied to definitely try to make ourselves less predictable moving forward.
"[We focused on] giving them more of a detailed plan coming out of halftime and we have some ideas for this week. Number one thing is we have to go execute. Can’t hurt ourselves with penalties, sacks, poor play calls. So we’re all in this thing together. I definitely gotta do my part to be better in the second half."
As an outside observer, a big thing that seemingly could benefit the Vikings would be to simply be more aggressive late in games. To play to win the game, not to avoid losing, with last week against the Lions being a great example. They were far too conservative in the second half of that game, settling for runs with Alexander Mattison or dump-offs in the passing game when they had opportunities to put their foot on the gas and pull away. After racking up over 100 receiving yards in the first half, Justin Jefferson caught just two passes in the second.
There are certainly complex schematic details that come into play with defenses adjusting and trying to take away Jefferson, but the Vikings need to adjust as well. Kubiak admitted on Thursday that he's got to do a better job scheming Jefferson open, even when he's getting a lot of defensive attention. The Vikings also have Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, and Tyler Conklin available as weapons.
It'll be very interesting to see what Minnesota's offense looks like in the second half this week in Carolina, particularly on their first couple possessions. Getting Dalvin Cook back, if he does indeed play, would help a lot. But in my eyes, it's gotta be a lot of Cousins pushing the ball downfield, even if the Vikings are winning. They need to have the mentality of continuing to score and expand the lead, even if that comes with the risk of sacks or turnovers.
Against a solid team like the Panthers, a couple second-half field goals probably isn't going to get it done.
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