EAGAN, Minn. — After clinching the NFC North title nine days ago, Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell spent the next week in a balancing act.
On one side, O'Connell was preparing his team for its regular-season home finale against the New York Giants and making sure it was still competing toward earning a potential number one seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. But in that same preparation, O'Connell had to also decide when to start resting some of his key players as the team tries to be at its best for the postseason.
"It's a balance between making sure we're doing everything we can to still win football games," O'Connell said Monday after the Vikings 27-24 victory over the Giants on Saturday. "There's a lot out in front of us as a team. We've been able to clinch the division and we know we're going to be a part of the playoffs, but there's still a lot to be said for trying to give ourselves an opportunity for the most home games we possibly can [have] while also making sure we're taking care of our roster and really projecting what it looks like from a snap count standpoint to be fresh when we get those opportunities come January.
"I think there's a lot that goes into it. I think we've got a lot of confidence in some of these young players you're seeing getting more opportunities and their role maybe not only in helping with the snap counts across the board, but their role in helping us win and continuing to grow and develop. That player development is a huge thing for us," O'Connell continued. "And if you can do it while still winning football games and providing your roster with a chance to continue to grow, I think that's a really good thing for our team and our organization."
View the Vikings in big head mode from the Week 16 victory over the Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Against the Giants, O'Connell provided increased roles on the defensive side of the ball for some of his reserve players — and they delivered.
After seeing a career-high 21 defensive snaps against the Colts, rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah II saw that number jump to 27 snaps against the Giants while he rotated in and out with fellow linebackers Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks.
Asamoah had just one tackle on the afternoon, but it was a big one. On the opening play of the second quarter from the Vikings 39, Giants quarterback Daniel Jones found tight end Daniel Bellinger on a 16-yard pass, but Asamoah punched the ball free from Bellinger's arm. Asamoah then scooped it up along the Vikings sideline before returning it 12 yards to the Minnesota 36.
View postgame celebration photos from the Vikings Christmas Eve victory over the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Then, late in the fourth quarter, it was special teams ace and backup safety Josh Metellus' turn to make an impact play.
Metellus — who sealed Minnesota's Week 3 home victory against Detroit with his first career interception while starting for an injured Harrison Smith — had 13 defensive snaps Saturday, the third-most he's had this season and the most since he recorded 70 snaps defensively at Detroit in Week 13 while again filling in for Smith.
With 4:10 left and the Giants in punt formation from their own 31, Metellus broke through the New York line and blocked punter Jamie Gillan's attempt. New York safety Julian Love recovered it, but Minnesota took over at the Giants 29-yard line and then extended its lead to 24-16 with three minutes left on a touchdown to wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
Defensive end Esezi Otomewo made his NFL and Vikings debut in Detroit and has gradually increased his playing time throughout the past three weeks. The former Golden Gopher was featured in 18 defensive snaps Saturday — a career-high — and recorded his third consecutive game with a tackle.
O'Connell said he's been trying to get Asamoah, Metellus and Otomewo more opportunities on defense and was pleased with their impact Saturday.
"Those three guys come to mind as three guys we really wanted to try to find some snaps for, and all they did was go out and just be incredibly productive with those snaps," O'Connell said. "We feel Brian's speed and athleticism on the field when he's out there contributing to not only forcing that fumble but recovering it himself. Metellus graded out really clean. Really good tackler, continues to show a real level of instinct and kind of finding a nice role in our secondary when he does get his snaps. And then Esezi, his energy and athleticism shows up. He's flying around out there, has shown to be incredibly coachable as a young player, as he gets more and more snaps.
"We're going to continue to find roles for everybody we can to help us win football games and those three guys took advantage of their opportunities and provided some great snaps for us in our attempt to help keep some of our other guys fresh and at their best here as we go toward the last couple games of the season, on into the playoffs," O'Connell added.
Here are two additional takeaways from O'Connell's availability on Monday:
Vikings offense seeks even run/pass ratio
Over the past several years, the Vikings were seen as a run-first team, with powerful running backs such as Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook leading the charge.
This season, though, Minnesota has relied more on the pass. The Vikings have dropped back to pass on 65.23 percent of their offensive snaps this season, the third-highest rate in the NFL.
O'Connell said while the offense's goal is to marry the run and the pass as much as possible, situations such as late fourth-quarter rallies or close games can dictate the direction of the play calling.
"Philosophies and all those things can get thrown out sometimes when you're trying to come back from 33 in a half, or you are in some of these close games where maybe you don't have those end-of-game, 4-minute type drives where you can add another six, seven, eight carries on those normal downs in the 4-minute mode to try to put the game away," O'Connell said. "I thought, the other day, just looking back on it, there was a couple real opportunities for us to stay on the field as an offense. We chose to be aggressive on one of those third-and-shorts and had a real opportunity for a potential explosive that maybe would have got us going a little bit earlier. Maybe would have given us the ability to stretch that lead out in that moment or kind of keep a lead a little bit more and not let it get so close, and we just didn't make that play. And then had a couple other shorter third-down conversion opportunities that might have provided us with some more earned first-down run opportunities.
"That's on me as the play-caller. My faith in Dalvin and Alexander [Mattison] behind our offensive line to run the football well – I thought Dalvin ran the ball well and definitely probably deserved a few more opportunities. It's just how that game kind of went. The opportunities to maybe avoid some of those third downs and some of the pressure packages you can see from that defensive structure, kind of presented itself to try to be a little bit more aggressive throwing the football on early downs," O'Connell continued. "I think that did contribute to J.J. and T.J. [Hockenson] having the days that they did, but across the board, we definitely want to be more balanced when we can and marry the run and the pass and allow our offensive philosophy to come to life a little bit more. Definitely something that I need to do better as the play-caller. Our guys are ready to go regardless of the play call; they go out and execute. And that consistency on some of those early downs or converting some more third downs will give us more opportunities to hopefully do that."
O'Connell said nose tackle James Lynch will "more than likely" be out for this Sunday's game at Green Bay and is considered "week-to-week." Lynch exited Saturday's game against the Giants with a shoulder injury.
O'Connell added he will also see how center Garrett Bradbury progresses through the week. Bradbury missed a third consecutive game due to a back injury.