Performing well on 3rd downs and in the red zone is critical to success in the NFL. This is why all NFL teams dedicate entire periods of practice to each facet of the game.
Coming off last week's loss in New Orleans, you can be sure Vikings coaches are stressing the importance of execution and playmaking in these areas. The Vikings defense allowed New Orleans to convert nine of 13 attempts (69%) on 3rd down, while the Vikings offense entered the red zone two times but came away with zero touchdowns.
For the Vikings defense, even more frustrating than just allowing nine conversions on 3rd down was the distance from which the Saints converted those tries. New Orleans was able to extend drives on 3rd-down distances of 5, 9, 4, 16, 1, 7, 7, 10 and 11 yards, and that's not even counting two conversions allowed via penalty from 3 and 13 yards.
"Yeah, we weren't very good," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday when asked about his team's 3rd-down defense. "They had a good plan going into the ballgame. We let them convert on two third-and-longs, which doesn't ever help. In those situations you usually get the guy out. There were obviously a couple where they kept a drive alive by penalties. We always look at the third downs and really everything that we do."
In preparing for the Atlanta Falcons this week, the Vikings defense won't like what they see from Matt Ryan and Co. on 3rd downs. Atlanta is 17 of 34 (50%) on 3rd downs this year, including nine of 10 when it's 3rd and less than four yards. This statistic illustrates the importance of the Vikings defense performing well on 1st and 2nd downs, so as to put Atlanta into more 3rd-and-longs.
Offensively, the Vikings must finish their drives better in the red zone. Against St. Louis, they were two for two in red zone offense and, not coincidentally, they beat the St. Louis Rams. Against the Patriots in Week 2 and the Saints in Week 3, both losses, the Vikings were a combined zero for three in the red zone.
When asked on Wednesday how he thought the Vikings offense could score more touchdowns, Teddy Bridgewater, who will get his first start on Sunday, pointed to the crucial area of the field.
"For one, we just have to finish the drives in the red zone. We have to get touchdowns instead of field goals," Bridgewater explained. "It's going to take a team effort, whether it's in the passing game or in the run game with the wide receivers finishing on blocks or the running backs doing a great job in the passing game also, whether it's being a late check down for the quarterback. For us it's just going to be taking advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself or the looks that we get on Sunday and trying to make the best of it."