Ahead of Super Bowl 58, what can the Vikings learn from the success of the 49ers’ run game?

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The initial idea: write something about the Minnesota Vikings related to the Super Bowl.

My first thought: explore the reasons behind Taylor Swift’s no-show at U.S. Bank Stadium when the Vikings played the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7.

The more fruitful storyline: what San Francisco’s top-ranked rushing attack can teach us about Minnesota’s offense.

Our starting point: The 49ers ranked first this season in the NFL in rushing success rate, according to TruMedia. The Vikings, meanwhile, finished 13th. On the surface, the difference between the two teams’ run games is obvious. San Francisco’s running back, Christian McCaffrey, is a superstar. Minnesota’s running back, Alexander Mattison, is a former backup.

As we’ve learned, though, running the football effectively is dependent upon many factors: offensive line blocking ability, defensive men in the box, ancillary skill players and schematic design to name a few. These variables create a footballish version of nature versus nurture: Is McCaffrey a product of his surroundings? Or was McCaffrey’s talent alone special enough to lift his team to these heights?

The answers to these questions are messy because winning football hinges on interdependence. Deciphering an individual’s impact on the result of the play is the job of analytics staffers and evaluators, but we’ll try here, too. Generally, the hope is that this will be relevant to the Vikings, a team that spent the entire 2023 offseason talking about transforming this facet of its offense.

GO DEEPER

Why the Vikings’ offseason priority to improve run game is about more than just balance

“A main goal of mine is to have some improvement in the run game,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said last spring. The Vikings made this priority even clearer by signing blocking tight end Josh Oliver in free agency.

Once training camp began, center Garrett Bradbury explained that imposing its physicality was a primary focus of the offense. Offensive line coach Chris Kuper shared that Minnesota had been practicing its run game more, even dedicating an entire period to the pursuit. He used terms like “pound the rock” and “move people off the ball” and “play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”

Then the games began. The Vikings initially struggled to run the ball but notably responded after the first quarter of the season. But the run game failed to carry the team down the stretch. Beyond Oliver’s inclusion and the usage of more heavy formations, the Vikings maintained a similar approach schematically.

Here is some information on the Vikings’ run snaps over the last two seasons, courtesy of Sports Info Solutions:

Run concept usage (snaps)

Inside zone

  

Outside zone

  

Counter

  

Jet Sweep

  

Duo

  

2022

49

118

19

11

36

2023

58

84

12

4

29

Whereas teams like the Los Angeles Rams shelved their horizontal zone-running schemes for a vertical downhill gap approach, the Vikings maintained a familiar philosophy — but with a different starting halfback as Dalvin Cook was discarded for the unproven Mattison.

On the surface, the year-over-year results seem to mirror each other. The Vikings averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2022 with a 38.7 percent rushing success rate. In 2023, they averaged 4.0 yards per carry with a 38.5 percent success rate.

But there was a big difference. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Justin Jefferson played every game in 2022 for Minnesota. This past season, they missed 16 games combined. How different was the Vikings’ ground game with Jefferson on the field?

Yds/carry Yds before contact Success rate

Jefferson in

4.4

1.71

45.2%

Jefferson out

3.7

0.92

33.3%

Essentially, the Vikings morphed from the Chiefs’ run game (bottom five) into the 49ers’ run game (top five) when Jefferson strapped on his helmet and ran onto the turf.

The why behind this is not obvious. The Vikings did not face significantly lighter boxes this season when Jefferson played, though league averages suggest box counts are crucial to rushing success:

How box counts affect rushing success

Yards per carry

  

Rushing success rate

  

6-man box

5.1

37.9%

7-man box

4.4

37.7%

8-man box

3.8

35.8%

One explanation could lie in the effect of play action. Jefferson’s sheer presence could force linebackers to hesitate longer, giving Minnesota’s offensive line more time to “move people off the ball” and “play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”

At the end of the season, offensive coordinator Wes Phillips recognized the importance of blocking consistency.

“It’s been tough that we haven’t been more productive (on the ground) more consistently,” he said. “There have been games where you feel like we’ve gotten over the hump a little bit. Then we have games where it feels like we can’t run the ball at all.

“The tenets of being a good run team are the same across the league. It’s the physicality of it, the technique, the fundamentals, the footwork.”

San Francisco was graded as the best run-blocking team in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The Vikings were 10th. This metric aligns with each team’s rushing success rate. Then again, how much is offensive line performance a byproduct of (a.) player talent versus (b.) well-coached game plans featuring motions and shifts that offer linemen advantages against defenders?

It’s a difficult question to answer but one that brings us back to the 49ers. From the time coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch arrived in San Francisco, they have infused the roster with high-end pass catchers. Shanahan is regarded as one of the most creative play designers in the NFL. Their offensive line contains one of the most decorated left tackles of all time in Trent Williams.

Still, with that scaffolding strong, the 49ers believed a dynamic running back like McCaffrey could lift their offense to such a dynamic level that they traded four draft picks for him.

At this point, arguing with the results would be foolish. In addition to his pass-catching ability, McCaffrey led all NFL running backs this season with 72 forced missed tackles. By comparison, Mattison had 37.

Of course, as for the 49ers’ McCaffrey acquisition, it helps that they have the salary cap benefits of a quarterback on a rookie contract (Brock Purdy). That’s particularly relevant to the Vikings’ situation at present.

Minnesota might pursue a young quarterback in April’s draft. There are also decision-makers inside the building who are open to the idea of adding a zippy running back on the market. At a minimum, Ty Chandler is certain to see an uptick in his usage. Perhaps that paired with consistent health for Jefferson and more effective run blocking could make a difference for the Vikings offense.

As long as the team does not have Patrick Mahomes (or another alien like him), the conversation feels worthwhile if it wants to be “the 1” (copyright, Ms. Swift).

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Vikings free-agency lookahead: 8 high-end options who make sense if Minnesota swings big

(Photo of Christian McCaffrey: Michael Owens / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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