EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — As Jarius Wright sat on his couch this past weekend and watched the Saints and Panthers battle it out in the Wild Card round, a simple yet important thought came to the Vikings wide receiver.
Touchdowns in the red zone, especially in the playoffs, usually equals wins.
That was the case Sunday when New Orleans scored touchdowns on all three of its possessions inside the 20-yard line. Carolina scored one touchdown on four possessions, settling for two successful field goals and missed 25-yard attempt.
The swing in points proved to be the difference in a 31-26 win for the Saints, whom the Vikings will host at 3:40 p.m. (CT) Sunday in the Divisional round.
“That is definitely a big deal, and it showed how kicking field goals and not scoring touchdowns can kind of leave you behind at the point when you need to win. It’s all about getting in the end zone,” Wright said. “It’s something we work on every week … being in the red zone, plays in the red zone. The red zone has been a big emphasis for us all year, and I definitely think it’s helped us when we get there.”
Wright is right on with his emphasis, as the Vikings have climbed 19 spots in red-zone percentage from a season ago.
Minnesota finished ninth overall in 2017 by scoring touchdowns on 57.9 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line. The Vikings ranked 28th last season at a 46-percent clip.
There have been contributions from all over as to how to get the Vikings into the end zone, including from Clancy Barone, the Vikings first-year tight ends coach.
Barone saw firsthand what a productive red-zone operation looked like when he spent time in Denver as an offensive line and tight ends coach. With quarterback Peyton Manning at the helm, the Broncos offense finished no lower than seventh in that stat.
Barone said he brought a few ideas with him to Minnesota to help revamp the Vikings red-zone offense but emphasized the collective role in the success rate.
“There is input from everybody. We try to utilize our players to their strengths. It’s not so much the plays that we come up with, but it’s recognizing the talent and skill level of each of the players, be it an offensive lineman, quarterback, tight ends or receivers or running backs,” Barone said. “It’s going to be a game of matchups. Whether that matchup of speed, whether that matchup of size, whether that matchup of power … there’s no magic pixie dust to see what the defense does, you just implement the skills of your players.”
Vikings tight end David Morgan said he realized early on that Barone would be an asset in the red zone.
“Clancy has been around and coached a lot of years and different spots,” Morgan said. “He’s been around a lot of different stuff and seen a lot of different things, so he’s a bank of knowledge. He’s a very smart guy and puts a lot of things into perspective.”
The man in charge of calling the Vikings offensive plays mentioned that sometimes success in that area simply boils down to efficiency.
“I think first, we’ve done a really good job of making sure when we get down there to not back ourselves up,” said Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur. “We’ve really limited the turnovers, number one — we had a couple last year — but also the penalties that will move you back.
“If we can stay ahead of the chains, then some of the things that you want to do as you approach the goal line you’re able to do. You get those long third down situations in the red zone, the script quickly flips toward the defense. They’ll let you get a completion, but it’s hard to get it in,” Shurmur added. “It’s important that we’re efficient down there, and when we take our shots at it, we hit on them. I think [quarterback] Case [Keenum] has done a good job of doing that.”
The Vikings have spread the wealth inside the 10-yard line this season as 10 different players have accounted for Minnesota’s 33 red-zone scores.
Wide receiver Adam Thielen, Wright and running back Dalvin Cook each scored twice inside the red zone. Morgan and fullback C.J. Ham each also put six points on the board, and Keenum added a rushing touchdown at Detroit.
Wright pointed at a bevy of options as the reason for the offensive uptick near the goal line. Yet as the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s playoff matchup, he and the rest of the offense know that success in that critical area could be the difference between moving on and going home.
“Execution, for sure. But we are a little more creative in the red zone, getting guys in different spots and just having the defense guessing. But also our run game has been able to bully people up front,” said Wright, alluding to the fact that the Vikings have rushed for 10 scores from the 3-yard line or closer. “We can do a lot of different things with guys in a lot of different places. The creativity and the people we have give us a lot of leeway to do a lot of different things down there.”