- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- We talked earlier this month about the task new Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has in front of him with the team's red zone defense, which was 26th in the league last season. But the Vikings' offensive issues in the red zone are no less pressing.
They were 19th in the league in offensive red zone efficiency last season, largely because they had Adrian Peterson to bang in five touchdowns from goal-to-go distances. But when it came time to throw the ball in the red zone, the Vikings were as bad as almost any team in the league. Their quarterbacks had a Total QBR of 35.2, which was 24th in the league, and the eight red zone touchdown passes thrown by Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel tied the Vikings for the second-fewest in the league (Peyton Manning, as a point of references, threw a stunning 37 touchdown passes without an interception in the red zone).
As we've discussed, tight end Kyle Rudolph will have a chance to break out in Norv Turner's offense, but the Vikings' woes in the red zone corresponded somewhat with Rudolph's disappearance as a target there before he broke his foot in November. Rudolph had eight red zone touchdowns in 2012, as he became something of a security blanket for Ponder in short-yardage situations. In 2013, Rudolph didn't have a red zone TD, and dropped from nine total TDs to three last year.
Ponder missed Rudolph on a 3-yard pass that would have put away a win over the Chicago Bears in Week 2 last season, and the Vikings blew the first of five last-minute leads on the ensuing defensive drive. Had the Vikings been able to cash in there, and on a couple other red zone drives, their record might have looked quite a bit different.
Besides getting Rudolph back, the Vikings might be able to improve their red zone productivity by involving Cordarrelle Patterson more in their offense; they seemed to figure out toward the end of the year how to get him the ball on screens and handoffs, and he might be able to assume some of the work done by Percy Harvin in years past. But the other thing that can help the Vikings is if their quarterback can develop a short-yardage connection with Greg Jennings, who was one of the league's best red zone receivers in his time with Green Bay. Jennings scored 26 red zone touchdowns with the Packers from 2006-12 -- the 13th-most by any receiver in the league during that time. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers frequently found Jennings on quick slants and back-shoulder throws, and Jennings' sublime route running can be an effective weapon in tight spaces if a quarterback can tap into it.
However they do it, the Vikings need to get better in the red zone in 2014, particularly by throwing the ball. As they saw in a handful of close losses last season, turning a 30-yard Blair Walsh field goal into a touchdown can make a major difference.