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Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski Photography
EAGAN — Up by two in Friday’s preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, Vikings running back Mike Boone accepted the handoff from Jake Browning and surveyed the field.
His blocking was set up perfectly, and the hole was massive. Boone, who hopes to be Minnesota’s change-of-pace scat back in 2019, made one cut and turned on the afterburners. Sixty-four yards later he was in the end zone, contributing a big chunk of Minnesota’s 200-plus yards on the ground in their 34-25 victory.
“To see that happen first time out, that’s nice,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, who got his first in-game glimpse at the new-look Vikings offense.
Minnesota tallied 213 yards on the ground, including four runs of 10 yards or more and two that went beyond 40 yards. They only had one carry over 40 yards a season ago.
In fact, explosive running plays were at a premium for the Vikings in 2018 when Minnesota was third-last in the NFL in runs of 10 yards or more with 39. The year prior, they finished 15th in the league with 48, but in 2016 they were dead last with just 24.
The lows are fairly easy to explain. Minnesota was in the bottom quarter of the league in rushing attempts in both 2016 and 2018 when they were playing from behind more often. They were second in rushing attempts in 2017 when they went 13-3 and were churning clock in second halves. More rushing attempts equals more opportunities for explosive runs.
Zimmer is adamant that the Vikings get back to a patient rushing approach in 2019, a lesson he learned from coach Barry Switzer in Dallas.
“He ran the wishbone at Oklahoma and then he came to the NFL, Zimmer said Sunday. “He talked to them all the time, it might be one [yard] here or two here and then minus-one here, but pretty soon it’s a 13 and then it’s a 20. They’re not all going to be explosive runs, but the idea of sticking with it and having that mindset that we’re going to pop one of these in there eventually, and we popped a couple [against New Orleans].
“And also it’s going to help on the play action, because the linebackers, they’re playing the run and the safeties are playing the run. That’s kind of what happened on those two plays.”
Boone’s touchdown run was a textbook example of what the Vikings hope to accomplish in their zone running scheme.
Minnesota lined up in “21” personnel with fullback Khari Blasingame in front of Boone in the I-formation. Minnesota used a fullback on 24 plays against New Orleans — more snaps than starter C.J. Ham got in any one game last season. The heavier sets should be a staple of the Vikings’ system.
The offensive line’s goal on the play was to push defenders to the right to set up Boone’s cutback lane, leaving Blasingame to eliminate the edge defender on the left.
The Vikings executed well as John Keenoy (No. 52) laid the all-important cut block, Tyler Catalina (No. 79) won his battle with the linebacker and Blasingame (No. 48) walled off the defensive end.
The result? A gaping running lane for Boone, who had no trouble making the cutback that is emblematic of a good zone run.
But it was the downfield blocking that turned this play from a moderate chunk of yardage to Minnesota’s biggest play from scrimmage. Receiver Dillon Mitchell (No. 17) blocked the corner, allowing Boone to reach the sideline. And notice Blasingame, who hopped back on his feet to rejoin the play.
Blasingame’s escort to the end zone was the final element of the run that had offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski excited on Monday.
“We talk so much about effort,” Stefanski said. “You saw Khari’s effort on that play was outstanding, you saw the wide receivers. … We make such a big deal in our meeting room, ‘Here’s exactly how we want this blocked.’ And then when you get into a game and they give you a front that you didn’t see, now it’s a matter of can we play faster and harder for that play? And I think there were a bunch of examples of that where it was not perfect at times, but I saw a lot of guys that the effort was really, really good.”
Minnesota’s two biggest runs came from Boone and Ameer Abdullah, who are likely competing against each other for the team’s third running back job behind Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. Both possess breakaway speed and good vision — traits that can lead to the explosive plays Minnesota desires. As Zimmer said Sunday, however, the decision will come down to who excels more in pass protection.
After all, one of the primary goals of the Vikings’ emphasis on the run is to set up better play-action opportunities.
“If they’re going to be in there on third downs, they’re going to have to block bigger guys,” Zimmer said, “so that’s going to be their deal as well. I think we feel like they all can run, they’re all smart enough to run the offense and things like that. But it will come down to third downs and those areas.”
The preseason opener displayed the best case scenario for Minnesota’s new offense as it produced over 200 yards on the ground and in the air. The next question to be answered is how persistent will the Vikings be if the run isn’t working right away? Zimmer felt it was too quickly abandoned by then-offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in 2018. What will be Stefanski’s approach?
“Obviously we’re having conversations throughout the game on what’s working, what’s not working,” Stefanski said, “but that’s our job as coaches, to be ready to adapt. It happens in between a series, it happens during a series, it happens at halftime.”