EAGAN, Minn. — The question was simple. The answer was simpler.
“What do you like the most about this new offensive system?”
Brian O’Neill replied Tuesday with a smile, “We run the ball.”
There’s not an offensive lineman who doesn’t prefer to be the aggressor when the ball is snapped as opposed to giving ground, so Vikings players have been pleased with the emphasis placed on the running game this offseason.
It’s a directive from Head Coach Mike Zimmer, with first-year Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski, Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak and Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Rick Dennison working together on a scheme to help an offense that ranked 30th in rushing yards (1,493) in 2018.
The Vikings also ranked 27th in rushing attempts (357) and rushing touchdowns (nine) last season, en route to an 8-7-1 mark that left Minnesota a half-game out of the playoffs.
In 2017, the Vikings were second in rushing attempts (501) and seventh in yards (1,957) and touchdowns (15) on the way to a 13-3 mark, division crown and first-round bye.
“They’ve been great so far. I can’t say enough good things about them,” O’Neill said of the new coaches. “The transition to [Dennison] has been smooth. They’re really pressing their feet on the gas right now.”
O’Neill’s rookie season was considered a bright spot among a unit that battled injuries last fall. The second-round pick started 11 of 15 games.
He was asked if this system capitalizes on his athleticism and said, “I think it always helps to be athletic in whatever system you’re in, so I’m not going to say, ‘I’m meant for this, or I’m meant for that.’
“I think as much as you can build yourself up athletically over the course of the offseason, it’s going to help you, regardless of the offense you run, but I think there’s some things that, hopefully, we’re going to do pretty well and will be able to run the ball more efficiently than we did last year.”
The Vikings have made it no secret that they want to implement more play-action passes this season. Having success in the run game can make play-action passes even more effective.
Adam Thielen was asked why play-action concepts that have been successful in past offenses led by Kubiak have continued to be successful.
“I think it’s hard for defenses to differentiate between the pass and run,” Thielen said. “It opens up the pass game; it opens up the run game.
“You see it out here at practice. Sometimes our defense, they don’t know where the ball is going. They don’t know which one to play,” Thielen added. “That’s when you sit in the film room, ‘This is why he’s had success and why we’re putting it in and why we feel confident about it.’ The results will speak for themselves. We’ve just got to keep trying to master it because there’s a lot of nuances and different things that we have to figure out as receivers to try to make things look the same so defenses don’t know what’s coming.”
Mike Hughes has been doing rehab work during OTA practices but will not hit the field in drills this spring, Zimmer said Tuesday.
The 2018 first-round pick delivered solid and splash plays in his first six games before suffering a torn ACL on Oct. 14.
Zimmer spoke with “Voice of the Vikings” Paul Allen last week about Hughes and explained why he’s looking forward to the cornerback’s return to action.
“You look at the tapes from last year, Mike Hughes played exceptionally well for a rookie cornerback. I’m excited to get him back,” Zimmer said. “We’ll find a place for him to get in there and play.”