The 2018 and 2019 Minnesota Vikings — much like the 2018 and 2019 Los Angeles Rams — were two completely different teams, even with the majority of their roster remaining the same.
The 2018 Vikings were an 8-7-1 football team that was below average offensively, but fielded a dominant defensive unit. The 2019 team improved to a 10-6 record, finished second in the NFC North, made the NFL Playoffs, knocked off the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round, ultimately lost in the Divisional Round to the San Francisco 49ers, and fielded a top-8 offensive unit and top-5 defensive unit.
The team flipped a switch overnight. The defense didn’t improve a ton, though they didn’t need to. Head Coach Mike Zimmer has fielded great defenses year-after-year, but it was the offense that went from below average to a fantastic unit in just one offseason. The offense went from scoring 22.5 points per game (PPG) in 2018, to 25.4 PPG in 2019, improving from the 19th ranked offense to 8th.
You’re probably asking how, and why it’s relevant to the Rams. Let me explain.
The Vikings fielded much of the same offensive roster from 2018 to 2019. The main difference was the shakeup along the offensive line. Here are the units compared:
LT: Riley Reiff
LG: Tom Compton/Nick Easton
C: Pat Elflein/Nick Easton
RG: Mike Remmers/Nick Easton
RT: Brian O’Neill
LT: Riley Reiff
LG: Pat Elflein
C: Garrett Bradbury
RG: Josh Kline
RT: Brian O’Neill
As you can see, the Vikings identified the offensive line as a weakness, and specifically targeted the position group as a unit they wanted to upgrade. They were successful in doing just that by signing Kline in free agency to a three-year $15.5m deal, drafting Bradbury in the first round of the NFL Draft with the 18th-overall pick, and moving former third-round pick in Elflein from center to left guard.
Ultimately, these moves drastically improved their offensive line. The Vikings allowed journeymen in Compton and Easton to walk in free agency, and released the highly-paid Remmers only two years into a five-year $30m contract.
Now, I do need to also mention that starting RB Dalvin Cook went from playing in 11 games in 2018 to 14 games in 2019. Obviously, having a stud running back is going to play a role in the production of the running game, but let’s take a deeper look at the improvement of the offense across the board.
(Stats from Pro Football Reference)
Yards per offensive play:
1st downs passing:
Net yards gained per pass attempt:
Rushing yards per attempt:
1st downs rushing:
Percentage of drives ending in an offensive score:
Percentage of drives ending in an offensive turnover:
Net yards per drive:
Average points scored per drive:
Based on all of the stats above (both raw numbers and efficiency-based), the Vikings were significantly better on all phases offensively. It should come as no shock either, as the stability of the offensive line allowed the rushing attack to improve vastly, which in turn allowed the passing game to become more efficient on less throwing attempts.
Not only was the offensive line a massive difference maker in terms of the offenses production, but the health of Cook (as I mentioned above) and additions of playmakers like TE Irv Smith Jr. and backup RB Alexander Mattison also had subtle impacts.
Lastly, the main correlation between the 2019 Vikings and the current-day Rams is the deployment of the outside-zone/zone-based rushing attack. In 2018, the Vikings’ staff elected to roll with Kevin Stefanski as the interim offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, though they added a real assistant head coach/offensive coordinator in 2019 by the name of Gary Kubiak. If you aren’t familiar with Kubiak, he’s a guy with a ton of NFL coaching experience, has had much success as a head coach, and is famous for deploying his zone-based rushing attack.
The zone-blocking principles paired well with the improved talent across the offensive line, as well as the skillset of running backs Cook and Mattison. Ultimately, the additions of the zone-based rushing attack, the improvement of the offensive line, the addition of a real offensive coordinator, and the willingness to run the ball all played a major role in the improvement of the Vikings in just one offseason.
So, where’s the connection with the Rams?
Well, the Rams are at a pivotal point in the construct of their offensive line. Much has been made about the decisions to let LG Rodger Saffold and C John Sullivan go last offseason, but that was a thing of the past. The Rams are now tasked with the upcoming free agency statuses of LT Andrew Whitworth and iOL Austin Blythe. Their plans are yet to be revealed, though NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport suggested both the Rams and Whitworth’s camp believe he’ll be back in Los Angeles for another year “without any hiccups”.
With that being the case, the Rams would be wise to lock in Big Whit for another season. He’s still the best offensive lineman on the team, offers a leadership and communication perspective that not many guys have, and still has quality football left in him. Not to mention the possibility that the Rams may be able to save a few dollars by signing their own guy as opposed to overpaying for another option on the free market.
After that, the Rams would be wise to continue exploring offensive line options. Whether that means clearing more cap space to help add another potential free agent, or to delve deep into the draft — or both — and prepare to select a day two offensive lineman that can come in, start from day one, and make an immediate impact. Luckily for the Rams, this offensive tackle (and in turn interior offensive line) class is a strong one. The draft class doesn’t necessarily offer superb elite talent, but the depth throughout is a major positive for teams looking to address any spot on the OL post-day one of the draft.
With that being said, the Rams should try to emulate what the Vikings did in last years offseason. Address the root cause of the offensive problems: the offensive line. If they can successfully re-tool the offensive line group, the entire offense — and in turn the entire team — will receive a major boost in production and results.
The Rams reached the Super Bowl just one year ago, with many believing they could be on the cusp of representing the NFC in the big game for many years to come. In regretful fashion, the Rams didn’t have an effective plan in place for the departed offensive lineman of the last offseason, and it ultimately cost them the 2019 season.
But, there is good news. With much of the scrutiny landing on the shoulders of the once celebrated in QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley, the Rams should know exactly how to return to their dominant form: fix the offensive line, and let the rest of the offense flourish.