How Do You Not Punt and Score 19 Points?

The Minnesota Vikings prevailed over Washington 19-9 in a Thursday night game that featured a statistical oddity: Minnesota never punted, ran for 161 yards, quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 23 of 26 passes with no interceptions, and yet the Vikings could not even score 20 points. How does this happen? It was the lowest-scoring output by a team that didn’t punt in more than five years.

It Was a Short Game

The contest lasted only two hours, 41 minutes of real time, but that’s not what I mean by “short.” The game featured very few total possessions: just eight for Washington and nine for the Vikings:

Teams in the 2019 season are averaging a little over 11 offensive drives per game, so this was a “short” contest. Additionally, both teams had token end-of-half drives with little chance to score; the Vikings kicked off as time expired in the first half (nominally a Minnesota possession as Washington never actually possessed the ball), and Washington received the ball with time for only one play at the end of the game. Minnesota might have scored another time or two given a “normal” amount of drives.

Red Zone Woes

Most pundits are going to point to the Vikings’ inability to punch in the ball close to the goal line, and there is definitely some truth there. Minnesota drove within the Washington 10 yard line four different times on their eight substantial drives, but walked away with only one touchdown and three field goals. On four red zone dropbacks, Cousins threw one one four yard completion, one of his three incomplete passes, and took two sacks. The ground game wasn’t much better, picking up 34 yards on 10 carries, including a touchdown and only one other first down.

Minnesota didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory just outside the red zone, either. On their first drive, wide receiver Stefon Diggs coughed up a fumble on the Washington 25. The Vikings quickly got the ball back with a fumble recovery of their own, but that drive stalled out at the 32, setting up a 50-yard Dan Bailey field goal. A second-half drive ended with a 40-yard Bailey kick. All told, seven of their eight substantial drives moved the ball into Washington territory, but two drives produced no points at all and four stalled out in field goal range, 

Bad Timing

Cousins may have only thrown three incompletions, but the Vikings certainly made some mistakes.

Drive 1: Diggs fumble. Turnover

Drive 2: One of Cousin’s incompletions on first down, followed by a two-yard run on second-down and a one-yard completion on third. Field goal

Drive 3: Two sacks in three plays, including a third-down drive killer. Field goal

Drive 4: Touchdown

Drive 5: Penalty setting up first-and-15, followed by two short gains and then an incompletion. Field goal

Drive 6: Failed QB sneak on 4th-and-1. Turnover on downs

Drive 7: Holding penalty setting up first-and-20, then three short gains. Field goal

Drive 8: Four straight runs come up a yard short of a first in garbage time. Turnover on downs

So there’s a variety of things. Cousins didn’t have many negative plays but they almost all showed up here, with two incompletions, two sacks, and a failed sneak. Twice holding penalties put the Vikings behind the eight ball. Diggs fumbled a drive away. Minnesota moved the ball consistently but shot themselves in the foot.

The Bottom Line

Minnesota’s offense was far more effective than their 19 points suggests. Given only eight possessions, 19 points is pretty good. They dominated the clock, both overall (36:36 to 23:24) and situationally (they ran down the last two minutes of the first half and more than eight minutes at the end of the game). Had they been in a closer contest or a more threatening opponent, the Vikings might have played some of their possessions more aggressively in an effort to score.

On the other hand, Cousins’ gaudy line oversells Minnesota’s offensive efficiency. Completing 23 of 26 passes sounds great, but only nine of those 23 completions converted first downs. He also took sacks on more than 10% of his dropbacks, a poor ratio. It was a good performance, but not as impressive as his 112.3 passer rating or 9.4 net yards per attempt would suggest.

The red zone performance wasn’t ideal, but that hasn’t been a problem for Minnesota over the course of the season. Even with Thursday’s performance, the Vikings rank tied for sixth in red zone conversion rate, having scored touchdowns on 18 of 28 trips. That’s a small sample, but one game is obviously an even smaller sample, so there’s probably no reason to be concerned. Minnesota is 6-2, with the fourth-ranked offense and seventh-ranked defense in points per drive. Few teams around the league have that kind of balance, which makes the Vikings a force to be reckoned with during the remainder of the 2019 season.

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