MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings were unable to establish a consistently effective screen game through the first 10 games of the season. It was an explosive part of their offense a year ago, but going into Sunday night's game against Green Bay, the Vikings had generated just 134 yards off screen passes, which ranked 28th, with just 15 of those yards coming on throws to running backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was growing more concerned by the week with his offense’s inability to execute screens. As he repeatedly mentioned, the Vikings needed to be more effective at running the ball. Generating an effective screen game, which often serves as a pseudo rushing attack, fell in that same category.
"Somebody asked me that this week: Do we have to be better at screens? And we do," Zimmer said. "It helps slow down the rush."
A breakthrough happened with 3:01 to play in the first quarter of Minnesota’s 24-17 win over the Packers. With Dalvin Cook motioning out of the backfield after the ball was snapped, quarterback Kirk Cousins dumped off a quick screen to his running back, who took the pass 26 yards for a touchdown.
The play was executed efficiently, sparked by center Pat Elflein handling linebacker Blake Martinez on a downfield block to create the space needed in the second level for Cook to make his way into the end zone.
"Great call by (offensive coordinator John DeFilippo), (Elflein) got out there and got a great block on Martinez, and on the perimeter (Stefon) Diggs and those guys they block their tail off each and every play," Cook said. "Once I saw Pat get out there and do what he needed to do, I just said 'I’m not getting caught at the 1-yard line anymore; I’ve got to get in the end zone.' It was a will thing at that point."
Cook’s involvement in the passing game amounted to three catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. Only one of those catches was marked as a true screen, according to ESPN’s data. It was not only the first receiving TD of his career, but longer than all the screen passes thrown to Vikings backs combined at any other point this season.
In many ways, the screen game has effectively supplanted the need for an aggressive rushing attack in today’s NFL. While the topic of being balanced offensively continues to be debated, the screen game -- whether involving running backs, receivers, tight ends -- has allowed teams to move the ball effectively by forcing things to the perimeter in an effort to mitigate the pass rush. With teams running the ball less and still averaging 4.37 yards per carry league-wide, screen- pass usage continues to rise across the NFL.
"The more you can be creative and change up the tempo of the rush with draws or screens to force them to honor that, or if they want to pin their ears back and rush hard, they’re going to have to answer to screens and draws," Cousins said. "I think it’s just a nice change-up, much like a pitcher in baseball changing speeds and forcing a hitter to have to adjust to that. I think the playcalling can do the same thing, just keep defenses on their toes and keep them guessing. That’s really Coach Flip’s job and the staff’s job as they game plan every Monday and Tuesday, to get creative and put guys in positions to be successful."
Zimmer praised DeFilippo for how the Vikings' flow offensively kept the Packers off balance. And it wasn’t limited to just the screen game. The Vikings' longest rush of the night -- a 12-yard run by Diggs -- came off a jet sweep, as did Cook’s individual longest rush of 9 yards.
Throughout the season, DeFilippo has regularly lined up running backs in wide receiver spots, as he did with Cook in Week 2 at Green Bay when he caught a 24-yard slant. Against the Packers 10 weeks later, Cook produced 21 additional yards in the passing game off non-screen passes, two catches that amounted to first downs for the Vikings.
Finding ways to effectively utilize Cook and other backs in the passing game has been a mission for Minnesota’s offense. On Sunday night, the Vikings’ patience in that area finally paid off.