EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have been a clear run-first team in four years under coach Brad Childress, until that Brett Favre fellow came to town and created an identity crisis of sorts.
Even with Favre racking up touchdown passes and minimizing mistakes, defenses continued to stack the line to slow star Adrian Peterson out of the backfield. So behind Favre’s aged but dangerous arm, the Vikings have become a pass-first team.
For the playoffs, the question is this: Will they stay that way?
“I don’t know if we’re a run team first or a pass team,” tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. “It just all depends on what the defenses give us. We’re going to take it.”
Favre was one of a record 10 quarterbacks who topped 4,000 yards passing this season in this increasingly air-it-out NFL. The offensive line has done a decent job of protecting him, save for a couple of rough games in December. The Vikings ranked in the middle of the pack, 12th in the league, in fewest sacks allowed per pass play.
Whether it was shrewd strategy or athletic advantage, though, opponents had the edge at the line of scrimmage for most of the season when it came to the ground game. Peterson’s 4.4-yard average per carry was the worst of his three NFL seasons.
Surging Dallas is coming to Minnesota for a division round game next Sunday, and the Cowboys allowed the fourth-fewest yards rushing in the league this season. They turned their victory over Philadelphia into a rout early and forced the Eagles to throw, limiting them to a paltry 56 yards rushing on 13 attempts.
Still, the Vikings won’t back away, at least in their public analysis and assessment, from their intent to re-establish the run.
“You just want to be able to wear down your opponent so you can make it easier for your pass,” said Pro Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie, one of several players who benefited from the first-round bye to rest and heal. He was bothered by an ankle injury in December, and his struggles in pass protection were apparent several times.
Linemen usually like run-blocking better, because of the control. They’re going at the defense, rather than reacting to the rush. Peterson finished fifth in the NFL with 1,383 yards rushing, but he had only three 100-yard games. He had six two years ago as a rookie, including two over 220 yards.
“We know that if we open holes he’s going to hit them,” center John Sullivan said. “He’s going to be successful.”
The unspoken assumption, though, is that this is Favre’s show. The success or lack thereof will be on his shoulders.
Favre is typically given an either-or call for each play, giving him the authority to survey the defense and choose run or pass based on the alignment and pre-snap movement. Sullivan calls the blocking scheme, with his own freedom to choose a more aggressive option.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell led a push to be more aggressive after the Vikings lost three out of four games in December, and starting in the second half of the overtime loss at Chicago on Dec. 28 they’ve been back to favoring the pass. They appear to be most effective moving quickly up the field with a rhythm and a focus on spreading the ball around to different receivers, mostly using the middle of the field with the occasional deep throw.
“Just kind of take what they give you underneath and not try to get too greedy down the field,” Favre said.
Balance, of course, is the most important part of it all.
“That’s what offense is,” Sullivan said. “You can’t be one-dimensional. They both have to be a threat, and they feed off each other.”
The Vikings returned to the field on Sunday after their week off to rest and heal, and every player participated in the short practice. The mental break was welcomed as much as the opportunity to get off their feet for a few days.
Childress said he saw “a little more pep in their step,” and defensive end Jared Allen claimed the excitement of the playoffs made him smile during practice for the first time in weeks.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, this is sweet,'” Allen said.