EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings are on pace to finish among the NFL’s top 10 yard-generating offenses for the first time in 10 years. They also have the most balanced attack in the league heading into Monday’s night game between NFC heavyweights in Seattle.
It’s a far cry from the last time Minnesota played at CenturyLink Field, a 21-7 loss to the Seahawks last December. The next day, head coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and replaced him on an interim basis with Kevin Stefanski.
The Vikings (8-3) return to Seattle on Monday night, Dec. 2, and the offense has never looked better in Zimmer’s six seasons as coach, eighth in total offense and on pace for their best finish since they were fifth after the 2009 season.
Stefanski had his interim title removed shortly after last season, and the Vikings added Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach/offensive adviser to work with him.
Part of the reason Zimmer fired DeFilippo was an anemic running game, and this year’s team has offensive balance Zimmer has always wanted. The Vikings are running the ball this season 50.15 percent of plays and dropping back to throw 49.85 percent of the time.
No team in the NFL is as close to 50 percent on each side.
“They’re really well balanced,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. “A real commitment to the running game shows up. They have a style that we really appreciate because they do run the football and try to play ball-control football with their short passing game.”
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, third in the NFL in rushing with 1,017 yards, said that foundation was laid when Stefanski took over last December.
“Everybody got what they wanted to do,” Cook said. “That was coach Stefanski’s game plan. That’s what we wanted to do. That’s what we’ve got to execute, but I think things have been different since (Stefanski) has stepped in.”
With the Vikings throwing about 60 percent of the time, Zimmer ran out of patience in Seattle. They fell behind 21-0 and needed a touchdown with 1:10 left remaining to avoid the first shutout since Zimmer arrived in 2014.
The Vikings called 35 pass plays and 21 run plays in that game and dropped to 6-6-1. DeFilippo was fired shortly after the team’s red-eye flight back to Minnesota had landed.
“I just did what I thought was best at the time,’’ Zimmer said Wednesday.
Looking back at the past year, Zimmer likes what he has seen from Stefanski.
“He’s grown a lot (with) the way the offense has evolved and the way we’re trying to attack defenses, communication with the players,” Zimmer said.
In Stefanski’s first game as coordinator last season, the Vikings rolled up a season-high 220 rushing yards rushing in a 41-17 home win over Miami. Two weeks later, though, the offense struggled in a 24-10 home loss to Chicago that knocked them out of a playoff spot.
It would be a stunner if the Vikings don’t make the playoffs this season. Helped by the improved running attack, quarterback Kirk Cousins is eighth in the NFL in passer rating at 114.8.
The Vikings are fourth in rushing yards per game after being No. 30 last season. Their eighth ranked offense is well ahead of last year’s No. 20 figure and could top the No. 11 ranking the team had in 2017, the best in Zimmer’s tenure.
“I am pleased, yep,” Cousins said. “I think it’s been a real positive the way we’ve run the football, the way we’ve protected, the way we’ve thrown the ball.”
Meanwhile, Cousins shrugged off the suggestion that the turning point came after the Seattle loss.
“There are so many moments you can point to, and I’m sure for people who love to create a narrative, that’s fun to talk about,” he said.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph also isn’t getting caught up in that narrative. However, he does welcome the opportunity for the Vikings to return to Seattle on a Monday night in December with a chance to have a much better offensive showing.
“(DeFilippo) got fired because we didn’t play well,” Rudolph said. “So, any time your coach gets fired, it’s a reflection of you as well. That’s not ideal. We’re going to try not to get Kevin fired this week.”