EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings talked all offseason about wanting to establish a commitment to the run, and Minnesota's offense did just that in 2019.
The Vikings finished third in the NFL by running the ball on 49.07 percent of their offensive plays, a stat that trailed only Baltimore (56.02 percent) and San Francisco (49.21 percent).
Minnesota brought in a handful of new coaches in Gary Kubiak, Rick Dennison, Brian Pariani and Klint Kubiak for a new-look coaching staff, while others such as Kevin Stefanski and Drew Petzing were elevated to bigger roles.
The result was a Vikings offense that relied heavily on the running game, as Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison combined for 1,597 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging nearly 4.6 yards per carry.
The emphasis on the running game meant passing and receiving numbers were down in some areas, but not all.
Kirk Cousins was highly effective with play-action passes, although the quarterback did not throw for 4,000-plus yards and at least 25 touchdowns for the fifth straight year. [Cousins and nearly all of Minnesota's offensive starters did not play in the regular-season finale against Chicago].
Minnesota will be looking for a new offensive coordinator in 2020, as Stefanski was recently hired as the Browns head coach. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said last week that he wants to keep the scheme the same and is focused on continuity.
And while we wait for the coaching search to come to a close, we looked at three areas the Vikings offense improved upon in 2019, as well as a pair of areas to focus on going forward.
Here are three strong offensive stats in 2019:
1. Rushing touchdowns
Well, duh, it's no surprise that the Vikings upped their rushing touchdown total in a season where they ran the ball 119 more times in 2019 and they did in 2018.
But they had a higher touchdown percentage on the ground than they did the year before, too.
2019: 476 rushes for 2,133 yards with 19 touchdowns. Touchdown rate of 3.99 percent.
2018: 357 rushes for 1,493 yards and nine touchdowns. Touchdown rate of 0.84 percent.
Cook's health certainly played a part in this, as the Pro Bowl running back racked up 13 rushing touchdowns, which ranked fourth in the league. Mattison added one, and Mike Boone had three in the final few weeks of the season.
Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen each also found the end zone once on the ground.
Minnesota's 19 rushing touchdowns were the most in a season under Zimmer, and was the best mark since the Vikings led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns in 2013 when future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson was on the roster.
2. Explosive pass plays
Besides getting comfortable with the offensive scheme, Cousins said one of his top priorities going into 2019 was hitting on more explosive pass plays, which are categorized as receptions that go for 20 yards or more.
The quarterback and his teammates certainly saw an uptick in those, even in a season where the Vikings threw the ball 140 fewer times that the season before.
Minnesota had 46 explosive pass plays in 2018, but saw that number jump to 55 in 2019. Cousins recorded 54 of those, and Sean Mannion tallied one in Week 17.
Here is a breakdown of Minnesota's chunk pass plays in 2019:
— 55 total explosive pass plays, with 10 going for touchdowns.
— Diggs led the team with 20 catches of 20-plus yards, while Adam Thielen and Cook each had eight. Irv Smith, Jr., had five such plays. Kyle Rudolph, C.J. Ham and Laquon Treadwell each had three chunk plays in the passing game.
— Diggs also led Minnesota with five touchdown catches of 20-plus yards, while Thielen had three.
With the Vikings running game operating as a strength for the majority of the season, Cousins was able to fake handoffs and hit teammates for big gains down the field.
Cousins recorded 55 explosive pass plays in 2019 on just 466 pass attempts. A year ago when he had 46 such plays, he attempted 606 passes.
Vikings players S Harrison Smith, DE Danielle Hunter, RB Dalvin Cook, FB C.J. Ham, LB Eric Kendricks, DE Everson Griffen and CB Xavier Rhodes were selected for the 2020 Pro Bowl.
3. Sacks allowed
Our final stat seemingly goes hand-in-hand with the first two, as the Vikings offense gave up fewer sacks in 2019 than the unit did in 2018.
Cousins was sacked 28 times this past season, a number that tied for eighth in terms of fewest sacks allowed in the NFL by a team. The Vikings allowed 40 total sacks in 2018, a number that tied for 17th in the league.
As a result, the Vikings also saw their sack rate per pass attempt drop to 6.01 percent in 2019. That same figure was 6.60 percent in 2018.
Minnesota had five games in which a quarterback wasn't sacked, including Mannion in Week 17; the Vikings went 3-2 in those games.
Cousins was sacked once in a game on six separate occasions, with Minnesota going 4-2 in those games.
The Vikings won both games (against the New York and Washington) when allowing three sacks, and split two games (against the Broncos and Packers) when allowing five sacks. Minnesota allowed a season-high six sacks in a Week 4 loss in Chicago.
Minnesota's chances to win based on sack numbers carried over to the playoffs, too, even if those numbers aren't represented above.
Cousins was sacked just twice against a strong Saints pass rush as Minnesota beat New Orleans in overtime in the Wild Card round. But the Vikings were overwhelmed by the 49ers pass rush that got to Cousins six times in a Divisional round loss.
Here are two stats that need to improve in 2020:
1. Offensive penalties
Zimmer wasn't happy with the amount of penalties his team took in the first month or so during the season, and the Vikings eventually turned that around.
By the end of the season, Minnesota averaged exactly six penalties per game, which ended up being the seventh-fewest in the league.
But there was one offensive penalty trend that didn't do the Vikings way in 2019 compared to 2018.
According to league stats, Minnesota was flagged for 43 combined offensive holding and false start penalties that were accepted. The site noted that 23 of those 43 penalties led to a stalled offensive drive for the Vikings.
In 2018, the Vikings had 38 total accepted penalties for offensive holding and false starts, with only 13 being listed as a drive killer.
The Vikings offensive line had a different look in 2019 compared to 2018. While Riley Reiff was the starting left tackle, Pat Elflein switched over to left guard after being the center in the two previous seasons.
Rookie Garrett Bradbury started every game at center, and lined up next to veteran right guard Josh Kline, who was a free-agent addition in the offseason. Brian O'Neill played his first full season as a starter and did not allow a regular-season sack according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus.
The Vikings had the exact same number of turnovers in 2019 that they did in 2018, with Minnesota turning the ball over 20 times each season.
While interceptions decrease, fumbles by the Vikings increased. Minnesota coughed the ball up 12 times in 2019, compared to just eight times in 2018.
Cousins and Diggs tied for the team lead with three lost fumbles, while Cook had two fumbles lost. Mattison, Ameer Abdullah, C.J. Ham and Mannion each lost one fumble.
Opposing teams scored half of the time the Vikings fumbled the ball away, although Minnesota's defense allowed just one touchdown on those dozen ensuing possessions.