EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings made all kinds of changes to their offense this season, from new linemen to new blocking strategies to a new backup quarterback.
One of the biggest goals was to establish more balance, both in terms of run-pass ratios and the ability to complete throws at a variety of distances, and one of the ways they’ve done so this year has been with the effective use of the screen pass.
For all the new-age concepts and schemes that have come to the NFL, these old-fashioned plays still have an important place.
“I wanted to get better at screens, because I know how difficult it is to defend,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It can slow down your pass rush. It can get guys hanging on the back more and not necessarily rushing the quarterback.”
Jerick McKinnon’s 27-yard touchdown reception from Case Keenum in the victory over Green Bay on Sunday came on a screen pass. The key to success, beyond a running back like McKinnon who can consistently catch the ball and read his downfield blocks, is athletic, mobile linemen. That’s what the Vikings had in mind when they transformed their starting lineup for 2017.
“They make it easy on me,” McKinnon said. “It’s always good to get in the end zone and celebrate with those guys.”
According to Sportradar research, the Vikings (4-2) have gained 128 yards on screen passes this season, ranking ninth in the league. They’re tied for eighth with 19 completions and 23 attempts. In 2016, they ranked 15th, 10th and ninth in those categories.
“When you have an offensive line that can run, give it space and create explosive plays like that, it’s just about getting the ball in the right guy’s hands,” Keenum said.
Keenum took the blame for a play on the drive before the touchdown pass against the Packers for not throwing it to McKinnon fast enough after a fake end-around handoff. McKinnon gained 50 yards on a screen before being pushed out of bounds at the 2, but it was all erased by an ineligible man downfield penalty on rookie center Pat Elflein. Guards Jermiah Sirles and Joe Berger were right behind him. That was one instance where having nimble blockers hurt the Vikings.
“We can run a little bit,” Sirles said. “I mean, having a guy like ‘Jet’ back there who can make the first guy miss, and then as long as we just stand in front of people, he makes us look good.”
The highlight for the Vikings on Wednesday was the return to practice of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater , after nearly 14 months of rehab work on his own to bring his left knee back to strength. Zimmer said Bridgewater will be brought along slowly, expressing uncertainty about when Bridgewater could be actually cleared to play in a game. Sam Bradford was “feeling better,” according to Zimmer. The coach has so far declined to declare Keenum the starter this week against Baltimore.
While Bridgewater was back, wide receivers Michael Floyd (hamstring) and Stefon Diggs (groin), left guard Nick Easton (calf) and linebacker Anthony Barr (concussion/ankle) were all held out of practice Wednesday. Strong safety Andrew Sendejo (groin), who missed the game against Green Bay, was a limited participant.
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