During the course of a football game, there are innumerable variables and factors that can affect the final results. Despite the complexity of the game, the ultimate aim is simple: put more points on the board than your opponent does. In order for an offense to score points, drives need to be sustained, and they need to result in scores. The two situations that need to be converted at as high of a rate as possible to achieve these goals are third downs and goal-to-go opportunities. In the past, the Vikings have struggled in both of these categories, particularly at scoring touchdowns once inside the ten-yard line. Last season, Pat Shurmur took over the play calling duties for the final nine games of the season, providing a glimpse into his offensive scheme, and allowing the opportunity to analyze his approach to situational football.
In the nine games Shurmur called the plays on offense last season, the Vikings converted 44 third downs on 110 attempts for a conversion rate of 40 percent. This would have ranked as 14th best conversion rate in the NFL, if compared to team’s averages for a full season, which would place them in middle of the pack. However, if we remember the quality of the Vikings’ offensive line last season, and the amount of times they were in third and 10+ situations due to sacks or holding penalties, this number looks even better. In fact, out of the 110 third downs attempted, 29 of them were attempts of 10 yards or longer. That’s over a quarter of third down situations in which they were no better off on third down than they had been on first down…which is not ideal.
In terms of the strategy used to convert these situations, Shurmur shows a strong preference towards calling pass plays, even in third and short situations. If the Vikings’ offense is more effective at run blocking in short yardage situations next season, we may see more runs, but the preference to pass was undeniable last season. Shurmur also shows a strong tendency to call two passing route combinations in particular. The first, which I saw frequently in third and short situations, is the slant/flat route combination. In this passing concept, the outside receiver runs a slant, while the inside receiver runs a flat, attempting to cross up the defenders. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was the most frequently targeted receiver in this concept (on the flat route), and was also the most frequently targeted player on third down, in general. The next passing concept that was extremely successful for the Vikings on third down was the crossing route concept. This concept is particularly effective against man coverage, forcing the defensive back to follow the receiver across the field, step for step. Crossing route patterns were called so often that it would make sense for the Vikngs to draft/sign a receiver based on their ability to fly across the field and produce with yards after the catch. (Josh Gordon would fit this role well, as would Moritz Boehringer, should he prove NFL ready in the near future.) Below are two examples of third downs converted with crossing routes, as well as two variations where the crossing route was sold first, and then turned into an out-route.
In situations where third down attempts failed, the most frequent results were either a sack, or a pass completed short of the line to gain. The persistent tendency for Bradford to favor conservative completions was a common complaint by Vikings fans last season. Throughout the nine games watched, Bradford checked the ball down to his safety valve within seconds of the snap a frustrating amount of times. While there may be less overt benefits to this conservative approach, such as less turnovers and slight improvements in field position, I’d like to see Bradford be more aggressive in his decision making next season.
In my opinion, the Achilles’ Heel of the Vikings’ offense for the past few seasons has been their inability to score touchdowns in goal-to-go situations. Under Shurmur, this was not the case. In the 16 goal line situations faced since Shurmur’s promotion, the Vikings scored touchdowns on 10 of them. Out of the six attempts that weren’t touchdowns, three were field goals, two turnovers committed by players, and one was a turnover on downs. Shurmur utilizes a good balance of runs and passes within the ten-yard line, but I attribute the majority of the success to his creativity with play designs and ability to manipulate defensive match ups with motion across the formation. Below are several examples of plays Shurmur designed that resulted in touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.
With the additions of two tackles, a short yardage running back, and an entire draft class still to come, I expect to see a noticeable improvement in the Vikings’ situational success under Shurmur, which should translate to more wins next season.