Vikings’ rushing issues threaten their front-runner status

The Minnesota Vikings sit atop the NFC standings at 5-1, the last team to lose a game in 2016. They’ve got a top-ranked defense with impact talent at all three levels and enviable depth. Coach Mike Zimmer is one of the best in the game and has the full respect and support of his lieges.

Yet there is a very real issue with these Vikings, one which threatens their perch as NFC front-runners. They cannot run the ball…

While the old salt argument “you win by running the ball” is largely a passé cliché in the modern NFL, there is still some merit. For Minnesota, it’s particularly meritorious.

The Vikings rank dead last in yards per carry at a paltry 2.6 yards every time Sam Bradford hands it off. No other team averages below 3.1 YPC.

It would be convenient to blame the inept rushing attack on Adrian Peterson’s injury. It would also be wrong; Peterson netted just 50 yards on 31 carries before his unfortunate injury. The perennial All Pro topped the 4-yard-per-carry line just twice in his final seven games last year, too.

[graphiq id=”bebbDtUw6wJ” title=”Minnesota Vikings Rushing Yards Per Game Comparison” width=”600″ height=”502″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/bebbDtUw6wJ” link=”http://nfl-teams.pointafter.com/l/14/Minnesota-Vikings” link_text=”PointAfter | Graphiq” ]

Most of the issues running the ball stem from the offensive line. The analytics crew at Football Outsiders confirms what the eyes see when watching Minnesota, ranking the Vikings’ line dead last. In 2015 they were 10th, but even better in power running and short yardage situations.

Injuries are an excuse, but only part of the picture. TJ Clemmings, the starter at right tackle in 2015, kicked to the left side to replace injured Matt Kalil. Free agent Andre Smith didn’t play very well in Clemmings’ old spot before going on IR himself. Brandon Fusco at center and Joe Berger at left guard are both better (using that term quite relatively) in pass protection than run blocking. Prized free agent guard Alex Boone, a mauling drive blocker in San Francisco, just hasn’t provided the expected oomph on the right side.

On the occasional runs where the back gets out into space, the tight ends and wideouts aren’t doing much in the blocking department either.

It also doesn’t help that the run schematics are often predictable and pedantic.

Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon both have some ability, and their abilities complement one another nicely. But the defense seems to know where the run is designed to go before either gets the ball, a la guessing right in Tecmo Bowl.

Long Term Impact:

The ripple effect of the anemic rushing attack is it forces Bradford to win games in the air.

Bradford has been a positive revelation with Teddy Bridgewater injured, but he’s a journeyman for a reason. Asking Bradford to continually convert 3rd-and-8 because the team can’t effectively grind out five yards on the ground on first down is untenable in the long run. Given the line’s problems in pass protection and Bradford’s proven fragility, relying on the passing game is not something Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner wants to do.

If the failure to launch in the run game continues, the play action dries up. Defenses won’t honor the fakes anymore. It makes it easier for the safeties to sit back in coverage, which makes life harder for Bradford throwing.

History says when Bradford tries too hard, bad things happen.

Unfortunately there is no easy fix. The production is ticking up, topping 90 yards in each of the last three games, though it did take 37 carries to hit that mark in the blowout win over Houston. Minnesota had enough cushion there that sputtering along on the ground was enough to run out the clock.

They’re not going to have that advantage all the time, almost certainly not in the playoffs. The Vikings have to figure out a way to get more rushing efficiency if they want to win a postseason game or two.

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