EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — At 6-2 heading into the bye, there weren't wholesale changes that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer wanted to make.
He did, however, want to reinforce offensive improvements in the red zone.
Zimmer had stressed the importance of converting third downs in the red zone and the correlation he had found among conversions and touchdowns to players during the offseason. He doubled down on the message before players took a brief rest.
The Vikings on Sunday showed they got the message by going a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone and 4-for-4 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday at Washington. That means that Minnesota scored a touchdown on each of its five trips inside the Washington 20-yard line (four involved gaining a new set of downs at or inside the 10).
In Minnesota's first eight games of 2017, the Vikings were 13 of 28 in the red zone (46.4 percent), which ranked tied for 25th through Week 9.
"One of the things we worked on in the bye week was third-down conversions in the red zone," Zimmer said Sunday. "We were 5-for-5 in the red zone, 4-for-4 inside the 5-yard line. I think the extra work that we did last week paid off."
The Vikings second and fifth touchdowns of the day occurred on third-down plays, and Minnesota went 8-for-12 on all of its third downs against the Redskins. Facing third-and-goal from the 3 early in the second quarter, Case Keenum took the snap and headed to his left, where he found Stefon Diggs for his first touchdown pass of the day.
Then, early in the third quarter, Keenum faked a handoff before quickly delivering a screen pass to Jarius Wright on a third-and-5 from the Washington 7. Wright had a convoy of blockers that included Diggs and Adam Thielen on the same side of the field.
Laquon Treadwell streaked in from the other side of the formation and joined offensive linemen Joe Berger and Pat Elflein on the inside of the play, allowing Wright to reach the end zone for a 35-17 lead.
An even better way to find success is to score before facing a third down, and the Vikings were able to do that on their other three touchdown drives.
Minnesota drove 75 yards on five plays on its first possession that was capped with a 1-yard run by Latavius Murray.
The Vikings marched 71 yards on six plays in the second quarter, capitalizing on a second-and-goal from the 7 with a touchdown pass from Keenum to Thielen, and then needed three plays to go 23 yards for another score that was set up by a turnover. Keenum ended that possession with a 1-yard pass to David Morgan on first-and-goal.
In order to put the game away, however, the Vikings had to convert three third downs during a drive that lasted 7:02 and ended with a 53-yard field goal by Kai Forbath.
Keenum connected with Kyle Rudolph for 12 on a third-and-4, handed off to fullback C.J. Ham for 3 on third-and-1 and zipped a screen pass to Thielen for 2 on third-and-1. He credited Vikings coaches for putting players in position to be successful.
Thielen is tied for second in the NFL with 19 receptions on third-down plays, and 16 of those catches have moved the chains.
"As a receiver, that's your Super Bowl of plays," Thielen said. "That's the play that you want to make. You make it work, and you know you're going to have the opportunity to get the ball. You've got to beat your guy, and it's your last opportunity to stay on the field. For us, that's a really crucial down, something that we've talked about all offseason.
"Coach Zimmer has really emphasized third downs, especially in the red zone," Thielen added. "I think that's a big reason why we won the game, because we converted on every third down in the red zone yesterday. We knew that was going to be huge for us and is going to be huge for us moving forward."