Thursday, December 28, 2017

Improving the Vikings’ offense started with Pat Shurmur, offensive line additions


The Vikings have improved several offensive categories in 2017. The additions on the offensive line, along with the leadership of Pat Shurmur have changed the landscape of Minnesota's offense. 

Updated: December 28, 2017, 4:30 p.m.

By: Daniel House

Last year, negative plays, fizzling red zone offense and an inability to run the ball plagued the Vikings. In 2017, the goal was to improve all of those areas under the direction of offensive coordinator Pat Shumur. Creative play calling and an improved offensive line have helped the Vikings turn things around. They currently rank tenth in total offense after sitting at the 28th spot last year. According to the league, 26 teams in the NFL have finished with the top scoring defense and a top-ten scoring offense. Over half of those teams have made it to the Super Bowl.

The strides this team made haven’t come on the heels of poor teams either. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Vikings have faced the 4th toughest schedule when combining explosive passing, rushing efficiency, defensive pass rush and red zone efficiency. This is the highest ranking among teams in the playoffs.

The Vikings have improved nearly every statistical category, including red zone offense, rushing attack and pass protection to help fuel them to a 12-3 record.

Shurmur’s creativity in the red zone
The Vikings scored in the red zone at just a 46% clip (28th) last season and often struggled to run in short yardage situations. The constraints in the running game really placed the Vikings’ entire offense in unfavorable situations. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has dialed up more creative personnel packages in the red zone to help bolster this statistic. The Vikings have increased their red zone success rate to 55.6 percent in 2017 (13th). They have also ended drives with touchdowns at a 40.1 percent rate, which is an increase from 32.8 percent in 2016.

Shurmur has been running unbalanced sets in the red zone to keep defenses honest. There have been situations where an offensive lineman reports as eligible and sets a small rub to create space in the flat for running backs and tight ends in the flat. He also uses rub or "pick" plays to help open things up in the flat. Shurmur has used subtle wrinkles like the ones below to create deception inside the 20-yard-line.

The coaches also have used more crossers that are complementary to other route concepts. They are causing confusion in the backend, especially when defensive backs incorrectly pass off plays in their coverage schemes. The use of motion, unbalanced sets and play-action have all allowed the Vikings to become more successful in the red zone.  

Using play-action and running the ball
The Vikings also converted on third down just 38% (18th) percent of the time in 2016 and have increased this rate to 44% in 2017 (3rd). They have done this by being more balanced from a play-calling standpoint and using play-action to their advantage. The Vikings have the eighth-best play-action yards per passing attempt figure (8.6) and are using it during a second-most 27 percent of their total plays, according to Football Outsiders. Minnesota’s success in early down situations has also placed them in more favorable situations. This has been drastically impacted by the Vikings’ improvement on the ground. Minnesota averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in the running game and increased this figure to 3.9 in 2017.

In terms of total rushing yards, they were averaging just 75.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. The process of re-tooling the offensive line helped increase this number to 120.7 in 2017. Overall, the Vikings were last in total rushing yards (1,205) and have jumped to eighth this year (1,810). GM Rick Spielman deserves credit for drafting Pat Elflein and signing Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff in free agency. He also snatched Nick Easton via trade and signed backup Rashod Hill from Jacksonville, who has started five games this season. In addition, switching to a zone blocking scheme has tailored the offense to the players both in the backfield and up front. Nick Easton's mobility fit the zone blocking well and cutting Alex Boone proved to be a positive move to complement the switch. In the playoffs, the Vikings will need Jeremiah Sirles to step up in a major way with Easton out for the season.

Investing in the offensive line pays dividends
In terms of pass protection, the Vikings have drastically improved with the offensive line additions they made. The Minnesota offensive line has allowed the sixth-fewest sacks (25) in contrast to surrendering the tenth-most last year (38). Case Keenum’s mobility and pocket presence have certainly helped the unit as well. His feet, combined with the offensive line play improved the Vikings’ 6.3% sack percentage allowance rate to 4.2% in 2017. The clean pocket has allowed Keenum to buy adequate time in the pocket to find his talented skill-players on the outside. Keenum has been taking chances up the field because of it, but has managed to prevent turnovers. The Vikings have committed the third-fewest giveaways in the league (14). Entering Week 17, the team has trimmed penalties from 103 to 88 as well. These two statistics have allowed them to pair an efficient offense with one of the top defenses in football.  

Designing and executing more explosive plays
During the entire offseason, head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur were clamoring for more explosive plays on offense. The combination of an improved offensive line, more balance via the running game and another leap in the progression of Adam Thielen have executed these goals. The Vikings had the lowest big play percentage last season (5.07%), according to Sporting Charts. Improving this statistic started with the running game. On the ground, the Vikings have 37 explosive rushes (runs more than 10 yards), which ranks 15th in the league. They had just 19 of those rushes last year, ranking dead last in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Stats. The Vikings’ longest run last year was just 36 yards. This year, Jerick McKinnon posted a 58-yard rushing touchdown in Chicago. The ability to call better plays, utilize personnel in unique ways and run the ball better have benefited the Vikings' offense immensely. The work of Pat Shurmur should be recognized and will likely lead him to a head coaching job when the season concludes.

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