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High-powered Vikings offense has struggled inside opponents’ 20-yard line

EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have scored a lot of long touchdowns this season, passing and rushing, but few short ones. Because the Vikings sit atop the NFC North as they prepare for their game against New Orleans on SUnday night, Oct. 2...

EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have scored a lot of long touchdowns this season, passing and rushing, but few short ones. Because the Vikings sit atop the NFC North as they prepare for their game against New Orleans on SUnday night, Oct. 28, the bottom line there remains unclear.

But Minnesota’s red zone offense has been erratic enough, and comparatively inadequate enough, to address.

With new quarterback Kirk Cousins behind center, Minnesota’s offense is one of the more explosive in the NFL with six touchdowns of 20 or more yards. That’s six touchdown drives that never reached the red zone, defined as between an opponent’s 20-yard line and end zone.

On the other hand, the Vikings have scored only 10 red zone touchdowns, and four from inside an opponent’s 10-yard line.

“I think you’ve got to be really careful about just looking at the straight numbers and really dive into how many drives ended with, say, a two-minute drive where we kicked a field goal with time running out,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said.

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That would be one, Daniel Carlson’s miss from the 17-yard line that sealed a 29-29 tie at Green Bay in Week 2.

The Vikings also ran out the clock inside the red zone in a season-opening victory over San Francisco. Overall, the Vikings have gotten inside the 20 and settled for a field-goal attempt seven times -- twice in last Sunday’s 37-17 victory over the New York Jets in New Jersey. Two of those attempts, including Carlson’s miss at Lambeau Field, were unsuccessful.

“We have to do better in the red zone when we get in there,” coach Mike Zimmer said.

By comparison, the NFC South-leading Saints have 20 red zone touchdowns, and 19 from inside the 10. Todd Gurley, the running back for the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams, has 11 red zone touchdown runs. The Vikings, as a team, have one -- Cousins’ seven-yard keeper in an Oct. 14 victory over Arizona.

“We’ve had some long touchdowns in the air and on the ground this fall,” DeFilippo said. “You’ve got to be really careful when you look at red zone stats.”

The Vikings have scored on passes of 75, 45, 34 (twice) and 22 (twice) yards this season; and running back Latavius Murray’s three rushing touchdowns are from 38, 21 and 11 yards - all in the past two weeks as the Vikings have pulled their run game out of the NFL’s basement.

“I think what matters is getting touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals,” Cousins said. “When you work so hard to get down into the red zone and you’re knocking on the door, you want to make sure you come away with seven points rather than three. I think that’s the emphasis. If you’re not doing that, it’s going to be hard to win games consistently.”

Cousins is completing 70 percent of his passes this season, fifth-best in the NFL, and his 210 completions lead the league. But he’s completing only 36.3 percent of passes in the red zone, according to pro-football-reference.com. Brees’ completion percentage drops, too, from a league-leading 77.3 percent to 77.2.

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Is the Vikings’ offense better with space ahead of it?

“No, I don’t think so,” DeFilippo said. “I think it’s just kind of how these plays have happened. We like being explosive, obviously; and getting touchdowns, as many as you can, any way you can get ’em. We’ll take ’em any way you can get ’em, whether it’s a one-yard run or a 30-yard pass or a 40-yard run. It really doesn’t matter.”

An improving running game can help. Working in DeFilippo’s offense for the first time, the Vikings have been hamstrung by injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield.

Dalvin Cook, the presumptive starting tailback, will miss his fourth straight game because of a hamstring injury on Sunday. And the Vikings have played games without starting offensive linemen Pat Elflien, Nick Easton, Riley Reiff and Tom Compton.

The Vikings’ running game is now averaging 87.4 yards a game, 27th among 32 NFL teams, but Murray has run for a combined 224 yards and three touchdowns the past two games.

“I think you are starting to see guys settling into their roles,” DeFilippo said. “I think you’re starting to see myself really understand what guys do well, and that takes time. No one wants to hear that, but it kind of is what it is, and I give our guys a lot of credit for taking the approach to getting better every week.”

Minnesota’s defense ranks third in red zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns on 40.7 percent of opponent’s chances inside the 20, better so far than their 45.6 percent in 2017, when they led the NFL in total defense.

“We’d like to be 100 percent (on offense),” Zimmer said, “but we’ve been fairly good defensively in the red zone. So, that’s one of our areas that we’re always working on with the entire football team, the offensive touchdown percentage and third-down conversions in the red zone - and consequently with the defense as well. So we need to do better in there.”

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