The stat was fresh in receiver K.J. Osborn's mind Monday because players had just left a team meeting before he hopped on a video call with local reporters. During the meeting, one of the key reasons for the Vikings' 34-26 win against the Cardinals was highlighted.
"We were 5-for-5 or something like that" in the red zone, he said. "Coaches are putting together a great game plan and we're going out and executing it. It's a total thing with coaches and players."
Five trips inside Arizona's 20-yard line resulted in five touchdowns — 100% efficiency that has boosted the Vikings offense into a top-10 scoring group (tied for ninth at 24.7 points per game) and is starting to become a trend.
No NFL offense has been more efficient turning red-zone trips into touchdowns over the past three games than the Vikings, crossing the goal line 11 times in the last 12 trips with the only miss a third-down field goal as time expired before halftime in Miami. They've scored touchdowns on 12 of the last 13 trips going back to the end of the Oct. 2 win vs. New Orleans. The Vikings rank fifth overall with a 66% conversion rate this season.
Versatility has been a key. Defenses gain an advantage when there's less ground to cover. They don't have to worry about getting beat deep in the end zone. The best red-zone offenses find ways to create space for runners and receivers through play designs and advantageous matchups. They also need to be able to run and pass effectively to keep defenses guessing. In the past 13 red-zone trips, the Vikings ran for seven touchdowns and threw for five; nine different players held the ball at the end of a score.
"That's what marrying the run and the pass is all about," O'Connell said. "Those mantras and philosophies matter in situational football, especially when you are a team that wants to be diverse in the red zone and apply a lot of different types of pressure to the defense.
"But when this field shrinks, some of that illusion can be hard to come by sometimes if you don't have the ability to run it or protect in the pass game that. Five of five is a credit to all those guys. Really, when I think how many times we've had lapses in the red zone, it's really been by our own doing, in my opinion. I think that really serves us well moving forward to know the types of things we can activate down there."
Pre-snap motion, fake handoffs and leveraging defensive attention were all on display against the Cardinals. Running back Alexander Mattison's 7-yard touchdown run to regain the lead in the third quarter had a little bit of everything.
Watch the video breakdown below.
Receiver Adam Thielen (19) motions on a fly sweep to the right, while Justin Jefferson (18) is isolated on the wide side of the field. This is important, because it gives Jefferson space to operate and forces the Cardinals to inch two defenders over his way. Watch Thielen motion the opposite way, set up with Osborn and tight end Irv Smith Jr. blocking. Thielen's motion ends up occupying four defenders — three Cardinals defensive backs who jump that way and a defensive lineman whom Thielen runs into.
This effectively splits apart the back end of the defense, leaving five Cardinals defenders to be blocked by five Vikings offensive linemen. Mattison does the rest by lowering his shoulder and powering through to the finish.
Some notes from rewatching the game:
The Vikings' run game dominated the perimeter against the Cardinals, whether by baiting an aggressive front like when Dalvin Cook's 30-yard pitch left set up by a fake fullback dive on third-and-short, or Osborn pinning linebacker Isaiah Simmons inside, or left tackle Christian Darrisaw and tight end Johnny Mundt bulldozing on another outside run. As the Vikings run from three-receiver sets, Osborn is often positioned as a blocker when aligned in the slot or tight in the formation. "Our receiver room, we take a lot of time out to talk about the run game," Osborn said. "We're not just glancing over it, especially my position. ... I'm a big part of the run game, so I'm usually working with the tight ends." Only six quarterbacks were pressured more than Kirk Cousins in Week 8, according to Pro Football Focus, at a roughly 43% clip. It was a rough game for rookie right guard Ed Ingram against Arizona's best linemen, J.J. Watt and Zach Allen, and Simmons, who disguised a blitz and got by Ingram for a strip sack. Overall, Cousins has mitigated the damage pretty well this season. He leads the league in throwaways (16) and has the fifth-best pressure-to-sack rate (14.6%) behind only Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Trevor Lawrence. Yes, it's often a conservative approach. Before Jefferson's incredible 29-yard contested catch (credit to Cousins for throwing it) on third down in the third quarter, Cousins had a blitz in his face when he checked down an incompletion to Osborn despite Jefferson being open farther down the same side of the field.