Can the Return of Minnesota’s Running Game Lead Them to the Playoffs?

When the Vikings’ rushing attack is right, their offense is hard to stop. After struggling to do much on the ground over their previous 4 games, Minnesota racked up a whopping 242 rushing yards against the Steelers defense in Week 14.

Let’s take a look at how they did it.

Dominating in the trenches

Yes, Pittsburgh’s D was depleted and hasn’t done a great job of stopping the run all season. However, the success Minnesota had was a result of their own effectiveness and approach as much as the Steelers’ deficiencies.

The Vikings were able to work them up and down the field, winning 1-on-1 blocks, displacing defenders with effective double teams, and taking an approach that worked off of their core tendencies on several plays.

The Vikings are a zone-based running team. It’s a certainty that the Steelers entered this game knowing they’d have to defend zone runs. So of course, the Vikings’ first run of the night was a counter.

Watch them put it all together below. On this play, the Vikings went with 6 offensive linemen. First, notice the down block to seal the inside by tight end Luke Stocker (#35) on T.J. Watt and the double team by right tackle Brian O’Neill (#75) and extra tackle Blake Brandel (#64). They caved in the Steelers’ interior:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_1EZPart1new

Brandel was then able to work up to the backside linebacker:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_1EZPart2New

That linebacker was slower to scrape over the top because he initially reacted to Dalvin Cook’s counter step to the left.

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_1EZPartNew

With the inside blocked, Pittsburgh’s interior line removed from the midline, and the outside sealed off by left guard Ezra Cleveland (#72) and fullback C.J. Ham (#30), Cook had lots of room to run:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_1EZ

The great blocking would continue. Later in the quarter, Minnesota ran lead iso to the left with running back Alexander Mattison (#25). Again, notice the great double team inside. This time, it was center Garrett Bradbury (#56) and left guard Ezra Cleveland (#72) on Cameron Heyward. Cleveland then worked up to the second level to cut off the middle linebacker and seal off the inside:

2021Wk14MinOPITD_runGame1
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Left tackle Olisaemeka Udoh (#74) and fullback C.J. Ham were able to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage and weakside linebacker, creating the alley for Mattison:

2021Wk14MinOPITD_runGame2
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_2EZ

Toying with Pittsburgh

Minnesota’s run game was rolling on all cylinders, and the big men up front were dominating in the trenches, as you could see on some of those blocks above. But the Vikings were also able to toy with Pittsburgh by playing off of their own tendencies.

As said before, the Vikings are predominantly a zone running team. And they had plenty of success with zone runs early in the game:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_3EZ

There may have been some alignment issues there for Pittsburgh… Still, you could see how the Vikings got the playside defenders moving laterally. They cut off the backside. And that was a great job by Bradbury (#56) of turning back and coming off of his double once he saw the linebacker attacking the line of scrimmage. The open seams appeared for Cook as a result.

Here was another zone (toss) run. Again, they got the defense flowing fast laterally. Again, they cut off the backside. Again, running lanes appeared:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_4EZ

You can even see how frustrated safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) was after another big chunk running play. “Friends, let’s do a better job of defending the zone running game!” He was most likely yelling.

3 plays later, the Steelers were finally ready to stop it. And the Vikings called a run play where the entire blocking scheme fired off in one direction at the snap. It looked like another zone run:

Week 14 Steelers O Vikings D_adjusted

The Vikings were not zone blocking, however. This ended up being a gap run designed to hit in the opposite direction and bounce outside. Wary of not getting beat by another zone run, the entire Steelers defense went with the blocking and got caught inside, leaving the edge wide open:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRun_5EZ

Big completions off of play-action

The Vikings do also have a good passing game with some dynamic playmakers. However, the rushing attack has to be right for it to be a consistent dynamic force. And when it’s on, it opens up opportunities for the entire offense.

There’s a saying that you don’t need to run the ball well to be effective with play-action. That’s true. However, when you do run the ball effectively, it does help make play-action more dangerous. It influences defenders and holds the pass rush just a little bit more. Against Pittsburgh, the Vikings took advantage for some big plays.

Look at the time Cousins had on this touchdown:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRunPA_6SL

With the Vikings running two deep crossers against man coverage and the play-action helping keep the pass rush at bay, Cousins had time to read the only possible help defender, the deep safety. Cousins did a great job of keeping his feet pointed directly at the safety. Instead of telling him where he was going to go, he waited for the safety to make his move first:

2021Wk14MinOPITD_runGame4
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRunPA_6EZ

Later in the game, with the Steelers starting to mount a comeback, the Vikings again turned to play-action:

2021Week14VikingsSteelers_MINRunPA_7EZ

Again, look at all that time. The Vikings knew they had the advantage against Pittsburgh’s secondary if they could just give Cousins time. Play-action helped do just that.

The Vikings might not be one of the upper-echelon teams in the NFC. In fact, they’ve largely been a disappointment this season. But if their running game can get going again, they’ll find themselves in the playoffs with an offense that no defense will enjoy playing against.

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