EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings offense had a lot to be proud of in 2020.
While Minnesota's defense has typically taken the top spot under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, the roles reversed this past season as the Vikings struggled defensively.
"For the first time in my seven years, I thought we had a very, very explosive offense. We've got a lot of good players over there," Zimmer told Twin Cities media members after the season. "I think Kirk [Cousins] had a really good season – played better all along, had some big moments in some big games. Obviously, Dalvin Cook is a tremendous football player. I think some of the guys, obviously Justin Jefferson, and some of the young guys got a lot of valuable experience throughout the course of the season."
Jefferson certainly added to the Vikings offensive success, proving to be as-advertised (and more!) after being drafted 22nd overall out of LSU.
The rookie racked up 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns, breaking Randy Moss' franchise records for both receptions and yards. He also became the new NFL record-holder for receiving yards by a rookie, surpassing Anquan Boldin's mark of 1,377 set in 2003.
"When you have a guy that's that dynamic and can be that consistent playing at that high of a level, it raises the level of play from the guys around him," fellow receiver Adam Thielen said of Jefferson.
Cousins had arguably his best season since joining the Vikings as a free agent in 2018. He finished the campaign 349-of-516 passing for 4,265 yards, 35 touchdowns (a career high) and 13 interceptions. His 105.0 passer rating was the second-highest of his career after last season's mark of 107.4.
And of course, Cook continued to do Cook things.
The running back had his healthiest season thus far and recorded an impressive 312 carries for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns. Cook also added 44 catches for 361 yards and a score through the air over 14 games. He missed one game due to injury and was not present for the team's Week 17 game at Detroit due to the unexpected passing of his father, James.
"I'm proud of the way we ran the football. I'm proud of the way Dalvin played," Cousins said. "He had pretty much a historical year."
Thielen continued to put up big numbers, totaling 925 receiving yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns, and young tight ends Irv Smith, Jr., and Tyler Conklin had some shining moments throughout the year.
Although Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak has announced his retirement, it seems likely that whoever takes over in that role will continue to align with Zimmer's philosophy about a run-heavy offense.
"I love the scheme that we're running offensively; I love the wide zone offense, and I love the play-action passes. All those things," Zimmer said. "A coach told me one time that your offense should be what your quarterback is best at. And that's what I feel Kirk is best at. Those kinds of things are what makes him really good. So to me, that is really important."
View the best running back photos of the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
3 Strong Offensive Stats in 2020:
1. Rushing yards per game
The Vikings averaged 142.7 rushing yards per game in 2020, which ranked fifth-highest in the NFL behind Baltimore, (191.9), Tennessee (168.1), Cleveland (148.4) and New England (146.6). Cook was the train that kept Minnesota's run game churning, but the Vikings also received solid production from Alexander Mattison, who recorded 96 carries for 434 yards and two rushing touchdowns in his second pro season.
Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone contributed offensively when called upon while occupying larger roles on special teams.
Minnesota averaged more rushing yards per game than any other season under Zimmer; the last time the Vikings averaged more than 140 per game was 2012, when Adrian Peterson helped elevate that number to 164.6 yards per outing.
Cook and Company were helped on the ground by Minnesota's offensive line and by fullback C.J. Ham, who in 2019 was voted to his first career Pro Bowl.
"I think [C.J. is] a fine player. I've had some good ones in my day, some good fullbacks, and I guarantee he's right up there at the top," Kubiak said in December. "I think he's just getting started."
View the best quarterback photos from the 2020 season from Vikings photographers including stories behind the photos.
2. Red zone percentage
Although the Vikings struggled a little in the red zone down the stretch, overall they saw a high success rate on trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line.
Minnesota scored a touchdown on 71.2 percent of red zone situations, good enough for sixth in the NFL.
The numbers were bolstered by Thielen, who scored an incredible 13 of his 14 touchdowns from inside the red zone.
"I think the play-calling has been great. I think the execution has been good," Thielen said. "I think Kirk's done a great job finding guys going through his reads and making plays, extending plays and giving guys a chance to make plays.
"I think we've been able to run the ball well," he continued. "You've got to be able to do both. No matter where you are on the field, you've got to be able to do both to have success, and I think that's a big reason for some red zone success."
The Vikings red zone percentage also was the highest it's been under Zimmer. The last time Minnesota ranked in the top six in that category? Back in 2009, when its 62.3 percent was third-best in the league.
Worth noting is that red zone numbers around the league were higher in 2020, likely due in part to empty (or near-empty) stadiums as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
View the best wide receiver photos from the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
3. First downs per game
The Vikings averaged 23.9 first downs per game during the 2020 regular season, which ranked No. 3 behind the Bills and Chiefs, each of whom averaged 24.8 first downs per contest and recently faced off in the AFC Championship Game.
According to Sportradar, Minnesota topped the league with 135 first-down plays that resulted in a first down (excludes first downs gained by penalties). The next-closest team was Buffalo with 130.
Among all players in the NFL, Cousins' 96 first-down plays that resulted in first downs ranked fourth-best behind Josh Allen (109), Matt Ryan (101) and Deshaun Watson (97). Cook recorded 30 such plays, which was the second-best among running backs behind Tennessee's Derrick Henry.
The Vikings also led the league in first-down success rate at 57.3 percent. For reference, where they struggled the most was on third-down plays (40.9 percent).
2 Stats That Need to Improve in 2021:
1. Pass protection
Like many position groups on the Vikings roster, Minnesota's offensive line experienced its fair share of ups and downs through the 2020 campaign.
Most of the unit's struggles occurred in pass protection, as Cousins was sacked 39 times, closing in on his season-high 41 in 2018. While it's true that the blame for sacks can be multifaceted and some responsibility sometimes lies with the quarterback himself, or with a tight end or running back that misses a block, etc., Minnesota's men up front could have done a better job.
According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, Dru Samia – who started four games at right guard before being replaced by rookie Ezra Cleveland – received a PFF pass-blocking grade of just 18.7. Dakota Dozier, who started all 16 games at left guard, earned a 36.7 pass-blocking grade.
2. Third-and-1 conversions
As good as Vikings were on first downs, they struggled mightily on third-and-short.
Minnesota converted just 15 (55.6 percent) of 27 third-and-1 attempts during the 2020 season. The team started out the season strong on such plays, converting on their first five third-and-1 situations. But over the course of the season, the Vikings struggled to pick up the single yard needed to keep a drive moving.
Cook took a handoff on 15 of the attempts and converted nine of them, including two touchdowns. One of the attempts gained 36 yards but was negated by a holding penalty.
Cousins was 2-of-6 on passing plays in such situations. Interestingly, the Vikings ran a quarterback sneak on just one of the third-and-1 attempts, and Cousins converted with a 2-yard run.