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Vikings can't (or won't) run the ball, but that hasn't slowed their offense

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) carries the ball during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Sept. 9, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. — No one in the Vikings organization wants to run the ball more than offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Or so he says.

His play calling suggests quite the opposite. Through five weeks, the Vikings have run the ball on 29.8 percent of their offensive plays. That would shatter the lowest run-ratio of the Mike Zimmer-era, which came in 2014 when the Vikings ran the ball 44.8 percent of the time.

The Vikings averaged 31.3 rushes a game last season, the second-highest number in the league. That number is down to 19.2 this season, the lowest number in the NFL.

DeFilippo said running the ball takes pressure off him. When he calls a run, he doesn't have to guess the opposing defense's coverage and dial up the correct routes and pass protection scheme. Running the ball makes life easier on him, his quarterback and the offensive line. But it doesn't necessarily make the Vikings' offense better. Not this year.

The idea of "balance" has been plastered all over football game plans and quote sheets for the past three decades, but an offense doesn't have to be anywhere close to 50-50 run-pass — where the Vikings have hovered in recent years — to be successful. For example, Minnesota ran the ball just 17 times for 54 yards in a loss to the Rams less than two weeks ago, and still put up 31 points and 446 yards, the most Los Angeles' vaunted defense has surrendered all season.

"Do we want to run the football with more efficiency? One-hundred percent. And we are grinding our butts off to make that happen," DeFilippo said. "But at the same time, the Rams game, (cornerback) Aqib Talib is out, (cornerback) Marcus Peters is on one leg. I like our matchups on the outside more than trying to bang our heads against (Pro Bowl defensive tackles) Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.

"There's no one that wants to run the ball more than me, and we're going to try to establish that and continue to grind away on that. But at the same time, there's a fine line between doing something just to do something and maybe taking some success away from your team."

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has praised DeFilippo for his intent on calling the best play for that specific moment.

"He's not going to think about outside influences," Cousins said. "He's going to think about, 'How can we score points on this drive? What gives us the best chance to win this game right now?' "

And, for the Vikings, that's passing. Whether it's because of Dalvin Cook's injury issues or less-than-stellar offensive line play, Minnesota hasn't been able to move the ball effectively on the ground. The Vikings are averaging just 3.4 yards a carry, 29th best in a 32-team league. Minnesota's 65.8 rushing yards a game rank 31st. Minnesota ran the ball 23 times in Sunday's 23-21 victory at Philadelphia for a whopping 77 yards.

It's hard to turn to that ineffective option when Cousins is completing 71 percent of his passes while throwing for 337 yards a game, Adam Thielen is off to a historic start, and fellow receiver Stefon Diggs is playing at a high level.

"I think you run the ball more typically when you have a lead. You run the ball typically when you feel good about your matchups there. You run the ball when guys are healthy," Cousins said. "You also run the ball when you feel like maybe the pass game isn't your best opportunity to move the football."

The Vikings aren't the only team to move away from a more balanced offensive approach. Two teams — Detroit and Miami — averaged 23 or fewer carries a game in 2017. That number is up to 11 this season. In many cases, the short passing game essentially has replaced the rushing attack.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said so many teams are playing single-high defense with just one safety up top in the secondary designed to stop the running game, that it's difficult to get anything going on the ground.

"So these teams are checking the ball and throwing it," Zimmer said. "They're taking a 5-yard throw as opposed to a 2-yard run. I think that's kind of how it is."

The strategy makes sense — analytics have always favored throwing the ball more — particularly as the rules, and the way referees are enforcing them, have moved to favor the passing game, both with protecting the quarterback and limiting what defensive backs can do to defend in the secondary.

Still, Zimmer does think offenses will get more balanced as the season wears on. That remains to be seen. For now, many offenses, including the Vikings, will continue to rely heavily on their quarterbacks.

"Running the football in this league is tough. Nobody is gashing people," Cousins said Sunday after the win over the Eagles. "(We) felt our best chance to win this game right now is to drop back and throw it. You can't do it all. You do what you think is best and hope that it will turn into a win."

Just throw, baby

Vikings percentage of running plays during the Mike Zimmer era:

2014: 44.8

2015: 51.1

2016: 47.9

2017: 48.7

2018: 29.8

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