EAGAN, Minn. -- The day after the Minnesota Vikings were handed their first loss coming out of the bye week, a 25-20 defeat by the Chicago Bears, coach Mike Zimmer began to publicly critique his offense’s game plan.
There was too much volume, Zimmer said, and the run game was not utilized enough at Soldier Field. The final score was not indicative of what transpired offensively. The Vikings had three points through three quarters and a one-dimensional attack that produced three turnovers -- two interceptions by Kirk Cousins and a fumble by Dalvin Cook at the Bears’ 14-yard line -- along with a run game that fell to the wayside.
Between Cook and Latavius Murray, the Vikings rushed 13 times for 17 yards. Cousins had a 5-yard scramble late in the game. As much as Minnesota may have attempted to stick with the run early, it was quickly rendered ineffective.
All of those self-inflicted circumstances stunted the Vikings from the start. Against Chicago’s defense, a hole that big was nearly impossible to dig out from.
"I thought they kind of -- what’s the best way to say this -- they were dominating us for a long time," Zimmer said.
In the weeks after the firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, the Vikings have found rhythm in the ground game, though the challenge has grown considerably more difficult each week. Running against Detroit in Week 16 was harder (in the first half, at least) than Miami the week before. Trying to establish a rushing attack when they host the Bears in a Week 17 game that sends them to the playoffs with a win will be the biggest challenge yet.
The Bears have only allowed five rushing touchdowns (first in the NFL), are second in rushing yards allowed per game (81.1.), second in rushing first down percentage (19.8) and fourth in yards per attempt (3.8). All the talk of the Vikings’ run game being fixed simply based off the increased number of attempts over the past two weeks becomes moot if the runs go straight into Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and the Chicago front seven.
"If you’re running the ball but not doing it well, you’re wasting plays," Cousins said. "Now you’re handcuffing yourself, and you’re basically trying to beat a defense with less plays to do it with. When you run it well, now that’s something that they have to focus on, and that in theory should open up play-action opportunities and maybe it slows the pass rush down a little bit."
Cousins’ success on play-action passing, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Kyle Rudolph in Detroit, has been set up by the Vikings' production in the run game. Continuing that trend starts with Cook getting more than the 12 touches he had in Chicago in Week 11.
"I think defenses are well aware of his skillset," interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. "I’m sure they’re in their meeting room and talking about how they need to contain 33 then it’s our job to find ways to get him the ball in space and use him in the run game, use him in the pass game. His skillset is unique. He really is a special player when the ball is in his hand."
The Vikings will find out Sunday whether their woes were largely masked the last two weeks because of the opponents they faced or if Stefanski has found the proper workaround for an offensive line that has struggled with the run. Learning from what happened in that last meeting coupled with the things that have allowed Minnesota to be successful in two straight wins (outside zone plays playing off Cook’s explosive edge, which in turn also opens up play-action opportunities) gives them the confidence that they can find ways to run against a team that doesn’t make it easy.
"I think obviously at times this year we maybe were impatient or just got behind," Murray said. "And I think that’s what going forward we’re trying to be better at it and staying with it even though the first of the game may not allow us to. But just trying to trust in it. If you look at the Detroit game, most of our rushing yards came in the second half. But that’s the mentality we have to have no matter who we’re playing no matter what’s happening. It’s just committing to it and staying with the running game."
It’s easy to want to commit to a rushing plan before game, but circumstances may dictate the need to do otherwise. Zimmer's main concern is winning.
"We’re going to do whatever we need to do to win and if that’s throwing it a lot of times, hopefully not 46 and running it 14, we’re going to do what we need to do to try to win the football game," Zimmer said.