In the wake of the Minnesota Vikings' victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, one stat line leapt out more than did others for the Vikings. That line--116 rushing yards for Minnesota--seemed improbably low for the well-healed Vikings' rushing game, especially coming against the 49ers.
One explanation for the Vikings' low rushing total against the 49ers is that the 49ers simply improved their defensive play, particularly against the rush. Under that theory, the one commonly supported around local water coolers, the 49ers blitzed the Vikings' running backs, attempting to force the Vikings' offense into the hands of Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. That led to more passing plays that resulted in either missed opportunities by Jackson or dropped passes by Vikings' receivers in the face of single- or no coverage.
The play of the 49ers' defense--and the schemes that the 49ers ran against the Vikings' offense--unquestionably offers a partial explanation for the 49ers' success stopping the Vikings' running game. But other explanations are required, as the 49ers confounded the Vikings' running attack even without resorting to the blitz.
The second explanation for the Vikings' relative rushing woes against the 49ers on Sunday is that, in the second half of the game, the Vikings simply reverted to the offense that led them to their 2-5 start. That reversion limited the running backs' total number of rushes to 22 for the game and, not surprisingly, stunted the rushing totals for the game.
Against the Detroit Lions the previous week, the Vikings' running backs rushed 33 times for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Despite holding a 35-10 lead at halftime, the Vikings entered the second half of the game with the plan of attacking the Lions' defense. The result was 184 yards of offense and one touchdown on 30 plays over three second-half drives--the fourth and final drive resulting in two kneel-downs.
With a similar half-time lead against the 49ers, the Vikings went into an offensive shell in the second half, running a meager 21 plays for 47 yards and no points, despite having six second-half possessions. The opening drive of the second half was indicative of the type of plays that the Vikings ran in the second half against the 49ers, with Jackson throwing two passes short of the sticks for four yards total and Peterson attempting a run up the middle on second down for zero yards. The result was five punts in the second half.
As running backs tend to fair better in the second half of games than in the first, it is not surprising that, facing fewer Vikings' offensive plays and less-threatening play-calling, the 49ers limited the Vikings' rushing attack to almost nothing in the second half of Sunday's game.
In the end, the Vikings won by a comfortable margin. But one has to wonder what the second half was all about. If it was about milking the clock, the Vikings' failed, holding the ball for just over 12 minutes. If it was about continuing to establish an offensive rythym, that, too, clearly failed.
About the only thing that can be said of the second half of Sunday's game for the Vikings' offense is that, aside from being ineffective, it did not produce any turnovers. In a must-win, conference road game, perhaps that was the goal of the second half. And that might be just fine. But it might also go a long way to helping explain why it was that the Vikings' running attack never got on track the way that most Vikings' fans have grown accustomed to over the bulk of the 2007 NFL season.
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