Vikings’ O’Connell says he can be ‘more balanced’ as a play caller

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell served as offensive coordinator on coaching staffs that were pass-heavy on offense (Rams, 2020-2021) and those that were among the most run-heavy (Washington, 2019).

After the 37-year-old former NFL backup quarterback called 52 passing plays to 19 runs during the Vikings' win against the Giants last weekend, O'Connell said there's a middle ground he can better find. His next opportunity comes Sunday in Green Bay, where the Packers' 27th-ranked run defense has had as many holes as those cheeseheads at times.

"Want to definitely be more balanced. That's on me as the play caller," O'Connell said. "I thought Dalvin [Cook] ran the ball well and definitely probably deserved a few more opportunities. It's just how that game kind of went."

The Giants win marked the Vikings' 11th one-score victory, meaning there haven't been many large leads for Cook to salt away. But O'Connell said running more can help better set up an entire offense that has been largely successful. The Vikings rank seventh in scoring and 12th in yardage.

But the results of runs against the Giants illustrate how both O'Connell and players can better adapt. After Cook's 18-yard run on the opening possession, center Austin Schlottmann was quickly shed by Giants nose tackle Dexter Lawrence, who tackled Cook for a 1-yard loss. Only the Jaguars have as many runners tackled at or behind the line as often as the Vikings at 24%, according to Football Outsiders.

"It makes it hard to defend if you can establish that run game, win some of those matchups on the line of scrimmage," O'Connell said.

A successful running game can further open up O'Connell's playbook, he said, with play designs that are built off running plays.

"Things that end up looking the same, but end up being hard to defend because they're different," he added. "Passes, different types of runs, screens, play-pass, getting Kirk [Cousins] on the perimeter."

With a slightly lighter workload, Cook has a chance to play every game this season for the first time in his six-year NFL career. He still ranks seventh in yards from scrimmage (1,387) among running backs while getting the 10th-most touches at nearly 19 per game. Cook averaged at least 21.5 touches each of the last three years.

"I feel as fresh as ever," Cook said. "Ready to bounce around and bring some energy. It's Week 16 — Week 17, I don't even know what week it is, to be honest. But somebody got to bring it and I feel like I set myself up to feel good at the end of the year ... and finish this thing off right."

But the football can be hard to come by when you're sharing a huddle with receiver Justin Jefferson, who leads the league in receiving yards and is tied with Dolphins star Tyreek Hill with a league-leading 14 yards per touch. Only six teams throw more often on early downs when the game is close than the Vikings, per rbsdm.com, a site that analyzes play-by-play data.

After 15 games together, Cousins said he feels "more comfortable" and better understands O'Connell's voice in his helmet regardless of the play call.

"If we're in a third-and-1 or a first and goal, you know there's a half dozen plays he could pick here," Cousins said. "But having a better idea of, I know where he's leaning, I know what he wants, I know what he's thinking — why he's thinking is probably more important than what he's thinking, knowing why."

The Vikings defense has felt an effect from all those passes. When they're incomplete, the clock stops. And Minnesota's defense has been on the field longer than their opponent in 9 of 15 games this season. The Vikings rank 19th in time of possession.

Cook has had some big days at Lambeau Field, where he had 191 yards from scrimmage in 2019 and 226 yards from scrimmage in 2020. Another one in a winning effort would all but eliminate the Packers from playoff contention and the possibility of Green Bay returning to U.S. Bank Stadium in the NFC wild-card round.

"It's fun being a part of Vikings-Packers," Cook said. "I was part of Miami-Florida St., and Florida. Now I'm a part of Vikings-Packers ... You only get it once, twice a year. Maybe three, you never know."