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Lunchbreak: Zimmer Ranks Among ESPN's Top Coaches on 4th-Down Decisions

It appears that coaches around the league are getting more aggressive.

Tim McManus of ESPN looked at recent trends with coaches going for it on fourth downs, and the data shows they will likely be yet another record number of attempts in 2021.

McManus wrote:

Coaches are on pace to dial up 838 fourth-down tries in 2021, up from 780 the year prior. (Even if this were still a 16-game season, they'd be on track for 788 attempts.) It will mark the fourth consecutive year a new high has been established.

Not only are coaches going for it more on fourth down, they're getting better at making those calls that give them the best chance to win. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the number of fourth-down errors has plummeted each of the past four seasons, reaching a new low of 951 leaguewide in 2020 and on pace for even fewer this season.

The increased application of analytics has changed the game on fourth down. Coaches across the league are being guided by game-management specialists who communicate the probabilities of an upcoming fourth-down try in real time.

With that in mind, ESPN wanted to see where all 32 NFL head coaches ranked in terms of making key fourth-down decisions with their current teams.

ESPN looked at three main pieces of data: total win probability sacrificed through fourth-down errors, difference in expected fourth-down conversion rates vs. actual rates and non-obvious fourth-down error rate.

View photos of the Vikings 2021 coaching staff.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer earned praise for both his aggressiveness and decision-making, as he landed at No. 10 on the list.

ESPN Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin highlighted Zimmer's most notable fourth-down call, which came on the road in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

Cronin wrote:

In Week 10 of this season, Minnesota led the Los Angeles Chargers 27-20 and faced a fourth-and-2 from the L.A. 32-yard line. Quarterback Kirk Cousins handed the ball off to running back Dalvin Cook, who gained 4 yards to pick up the first down. The Vikings kneeled out the clock and beat the Chargers. This was the start of the Vikings new-found aggressiveness. Zimmer didn't want to risk giving the ball back to Chargers QB Justin Herbert with over two minutes to play in the game. The run from Cook allowed Minnesota to ice the game and snap a two-game losing streak with an important road win.

The Vikings offense ranks fifth in the league in 2021 with a 64.29-percent success rate on fourth downs.

Craig: Winless Lions won't lie down Sunday

With Week 13 on the horizon, there are six teams across the league who are perfect in division play.

Minnesota (2-0 against the NFC North) is part of a group that includes five NFC teams, plus Buffalo in the AFC.

And while the Vikings will try to keep their perfect division record intact against the winless Lions on Sunday, Mark Craig of the Star Tribune said Minnesota better be on high alert.

Craig wrote:

By gosh, here they go again. For the third time in 20 years, a Vikings team trying to make the playoffs will travel to Detroit in December to face a winless Lions team still hungry to avoid having its name attached to the list of the NFL's biggest losers of all time.

Mike Zimmer better hope Sunday's game at Ford Field doesn't end the way Denny Green's trip to the Silverdome did on Dec. 16, 2001. Zim's record is 5-6. Denny's was 5-7.

Like this year's Lions team with Dan Campbell (0-10-1), Detroit had a rookie head coach, Marty Mornhinweg (0-12), who was still looking for his first NFL win in 2001.

Marty was trying to avoid becoming the league's first coach to go 0-16. Fortunately for Marty, it would be another seven years before Rod Marinelli secured that dubious distinction for Detroit.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Lions.

As Craig noted above, the Lions are the only team in the NFL without a win this season. Every other franchise has at least two victories.

Minnesota is looking for its ninth straight win over Detroit. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is 7-0 against the Lions since joining the Vikings in 2018.