Rushing yards weren’t coming easy for the Vikings in Atlanta after halftime. But Latavius Murray’s 12th carry — the fifth of this surgically methodical drive — backed Falcons defenders’ heels to the edge of their own end zone.
Murray exploded off his left foot, cutting once to his right into the open field between right guard Joe Berger and right tackle Rashod Hill. The 7-yard gain might have been the easiest third-and-1 conversion of Murray’s career. It was the Vikings’ eighth handoff and 13th play of the game-winning drive, which spanned 8 minutes, 11 seconds.
“It wears them down,” Murray said. “I think it takes a little life out of them. That’s huge when we can flip the field like that. Not only flip the field, but put it in for a touchdown and kill some clock.”
That’s what a top-10 running game is doing for this Vikings offense. It’s what the Vikings didn’t have at all last season.
Minnesota’s turnaround in the running game — from dead last in 2016 to sixth this season (122.8 yards per game) — is not only impressive, it’s historical.
Not since Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk was drafted by the Colts in 1994 has an NFL team gone from the league’s worst run game to the top 10.
“It all starts with the run game,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “That’s part of the reason why our downfield passing game is better. You don’t have a run game and you’re one-dimensional, it’s hard to do anything.”
Losing Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL in Week 4 could have been a death blow, but the Vikings are rushing for 22 more yards per game since then.
Murray’s growing comfort on his surgically repaired ankle and a growing rapport with a retooled offensive line have led to seven 100-yard rushing days for the offense in an eight-game win streak.
“Those guys are getting a lot more movement this year,” said Jerick McKinnon, the other half of the Vikings’ 1-2 punch. “It’s been a lot easier.”
Coach Mike Zimmer challenged the offense last offseason to find a more effective running game and break off “explosive” plays. Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman matched the edict with resources, including drafting Cook and center Pat Elflein, and spending on free agents Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers — known run blockers.
The system orchestrated by coordinator Pat Shurmur reflects this approach. Play calls are split nearly down the middle (52 percent pass, 48 percent run), allowing quarterback Case Keenum to execute a play-action-rooted passing game with an actual threat of a run game keeping defenses guessing.
The Vikings deploy Murray as the lead back, but McKinnon leads in both playing time (382 snaps to 286) and yards from scrimmage (703 to 632). McKinnon’s efficiency as both a screen threat and pass protector keeps him heavily involved in the pass game. Meanwhile, Murray continues to improve with more carries.
“I think it’s sticking with [the run],” Berger said. “No question Pat has done a great job calling plays that are working.”
A vastly improved run game has lifted the Vikings’ entire fifth-ranked offense. Keenum is one of the league’s most effective passers out of play-action, ranking sixth in passer rating (118.5). And Minnesota is sticking with what works. Keenum’s 103 play-action throws are the fifth most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Not just, you know, getting yards off runs but then play-action and having teams respect the run, loading up the box and throwing the ball,” Keenum said. “So, I think it’s been crucial to keep a good balance.”