Almost a decade ago I created a metric called Early Down Success Rate, or EDSR. It measures offensive efficiency on early downs and a team’s ability to bypass third downs.
The number one offense in the NFL? They’re playing in this game.
The Seattle Seahawks? No.
The Minnesota Vikings lead the NFL in EDSR through the first four games.
The Vikings were actually #1 after two weeks in the season, but those two games the reason why they were as strong on early downs was obvious: trailing on the scoreboard early in games, the Vikings Offense had no alternative but to attack more aggressively. It wasn’t out of a desire to be efficient and avoid third downs, it was out of the desire to get back into the game quickly.
But in the last two games, against the Titans and Texans, the Vikings led throughout the games. Yet they still were dominant on early downs.
Against the Titans, on early downs in the first three quarters, the Vikings ran the ball 58% of the time. But fortunately, these runs averaged 5.3 YPC. Where the Vikings did most of their damage was 42% of the time when they passed the ball. There, they averaged 11.5 YPA, +0.35 EPA/att and a 56% success rate, taking zero sacks on 16 dropbacks. And they did so out of a variety of personnel grouping including 11, 12 and 21.
Last week against the Texans, the Vikings again stayed conservative by running the ball on 62% of early downs. But when they turned to the pass, yet again, these passes were dominant, gaining 12.6 YPA with +0.44 EPA/att and a 60% success rate.
The Vikings are trending in the right direction offensively with rookie WR Justin Jefferson the last two weeks getting more involved in this offense.
Seattle’s passing defense ranks 4th worst on the season despite playing the NFL’s 7th easiest schedule of opposing passing offenses. This must be where the Vikings look to attack.
Seattle’s strength is their strong run defense. It ranks sixth in the NFL despite playing the fourth toughest schedule of opposing rushing offenses. Will the Vikings stick with a run-first approach? Because if they do, it could cause them problems with lack of production on early down runs, leaving them with more obvious passing situations on third down.
Minnesota’s offense has put up 34, 40 and 31 points against teams with bottom-10 run defenses. They’ve played just one other team with a top-10 run defense, and that was the Colts. And the Vikings put up only 11 points in that game.
The Vikings are 0-6 against the Seahawks since 2012, including losing in 2019 and 2018 in Seattle.
In that last game in 2019, the Vikings actually went with a much more pass-heavy approach, something very atypical for them on the season.
The Vikings passed the ball on 65% of early down plays in the first three quarters. These passes generated 7.2 YPA against a much stronger Seahawks pass defense, while gaining +0.17 EPA/att.
In this game, the Vikings absolutely must take a similar approach and pass more often. Usually I would be skeptical, but considering the Vikings did it just last season when they faced the Seahawks, my confidence improves that they will do it again.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings Defense should be thankful they’ve played three offenses that rank outside the top-12 on the season, because they would have allowed even more points. The Packers, the NFL’s #1 offense, hung 43 points in week 1 of the season. Now they must face the #3 offense in the NFL. And it’s the 5th most pass-heavy offense, which will be a problem for the Vikings.
Minnesota’s pass defense ranks 32nd in the NFL vs explosive passes.
The Seahawks primarily pass the ball from 11 and 12 personnel. And the Vikings have struggled to defend both. Particularly on first down.
On first down passes from any grouping, the Vikings pass defense is allowing 9.1 YPA, +0.27 EPA/att and a 61% success rate.
This meshes right into Seattle’s strength, as they average 9.6 YPA, +0.34 EPA/att and a 68% success rate, and Seattle passes the ball on 62% of the team’s first half first downs.
But it’s on second downs where the Seahawks dominate offensively. They average 11.3 YPA, +0.41 EPA/att and a 70% success rate.
Seattle absolutely should look to put the Vikings in a bind early in this game. On the season, the Vikings are 0-2 when trailing at the half. In their last 25 games, dating back to 2016, the Vikings are 2-22-1 when trailing at halftime (8%). They have covered just 3 of these 25 games.
As the data showed earlier, the Vikings are explosive when passing, but they prefer to run and pass off the run. It’s not smart, but it’s what they like to do. If they fall behind, however, their passing in the second half is substantially less efficient.
The Seahawks have a substantial number of defensive players on the injury report that did not practice today, and have not played for a week or two. Being they are on a bye next week, will they rush these players back just for this game, risking further injury? I’m of the opinion that several of these players will be absent this Sunday night.