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One weird trick to get a top-5 offense for the Minnesota Vikings

Purple Pain

This Minnesota Vikings fan blog entry was originally posted at Purple Pain Forums by MidwinterViking.

Are you worried your offense isn’t as lush and decadent as it used to be? Do you feel like people are looking at you and thinking “that team goes three-and-out a lot”? Well, good news! Top offensive minds agree there is one simple trick to gaining more yards and scoring more points – and the best part is that it requires no additional work or talent on your part! (Seriously, unless you actually play for the Minnesota Vikings, you don’t have to do anything differently.)

How can the Vikings get a top 5 offense?

Within that larger question about the Vikings’ offense, there is an underlying assumption that “Kirk Cousins is who he is and won’t change at this point in his career”. In general, Cousins is a known quantity, but he has shown some ability to adapt to different coordinators over four years with the Vikings.

The best example of his adaption was in 2020 and 2021 when escaping the pocket was an emphasis, and when he had his highest yards per carry (4.9 and 4.0 versus a career of 3.2 YPC). Is that a significant change? Well, he never approximated Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes of the group, but is that enough to show that he can execute what is asked of him within the confines of his skillset?

Related: NFL QB Rankings: Check our top-20 quarterbacks, from Aaron Rodgers to Carson Wentz

For expectations in 2022, what I am starting with is:

1) An assumption that Cousins is who he is and any changes won’t be based on him turning into a Tom Brady-style assassin or even a Philip Rivers-style gunslinger.

2) A focus on the Rams’ 2021 passing game to see if there is anything they did that might lead to improvements.

I think this question and answer in a recent Kwesi Adofo-Mensah press conference sums up things quite well. This was a great answer to a highly-relevant question that was buried at 17:30 in a 19-minute press conference:

Question: When it comes to Kirk, you mentioned how high can we take this. Do you see things in the roster and the scheme where you can take his production higher than it has been in the past?

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah: “We do. Football is one of those sports where you’re looking for three plays per game. Can you get them in 2nd-and-6 versus 2nd-and-11? Can you eliminate some bad things that happen? That’s not just Kirk, that’s anyone. We talk about winning on the margins. You can win on the margins by putting him in a better situation; small things can have big outcomes.

Is this “we can be better” thought justified by Vikings’ stats? I think it is. Three-and-outs were a huge problem for the Vikings last year. However, the Vikings are also an interesting outlier with three-and-outs.

I used Stathead to do a drive search for drives <=3 plays; then compared that to total offense from Pro Football Reference. The results are fascinating:

Most of the teams that go three-and-out a lot stink out loud! The Vikings are clear outliers, because even with all those three-and-outs, the Vikings are in the top half of the league in points, yards, and yards per play. So, they were a weird combination of being an average-to-good offense with a giant albatross of futility hung around their necks.

The thing I found most interesting about this chart is when I started looking at what it would take to change things and questioning what a realistic change would be. I don’t want to assume something that would suddenly put the Vikings up next to the Chiefs on that three-and-out side of the picture; that’s not realistic.

The question I landed on is: Can the Vikings avoid a single three-and-out per game? One per game over 17 games would move the Vikings from 72 (-17) down to 55; that would be tied with the Lions. That passes the “Is this realistic?” test. The Vikings don’t have to match the Chiefs or Bills on drive efficiency… just the Lions.

Replacing every three-and-out with a 70-yard touchdown drive isn’t going to happen, either. The average drive for the Vikings in 2021 was 30 yards. If you replace 17 failed drives of five yards with 17 average drives, that’s +425 yards (17 x 25 yards) for the season, which would move the Vikings up to a top-five offense. So, essentially, the difference between the Vikings’ 2021 offense and a top-five offense is avoiding a single three-and-out per game. 

Related: Minnesota Vikings mock draft: 2022 NFL Draft projections and analysis

Where does the change come from?

Next, I wanted to see what I could find from Kevin O’Connell’s past that might avoid some three-and-outs. I looked at common opponents between the Rams and Vikings in 2021. I’m looking for things “on the margin” as Adofo-Mensah put it. Specifically, I’m looking for dump-offs, checkdowns, and safe passes that could keep a drive on schedule.

What I’m not going to do is look for big, explosive plays or make a case why Cousins will throw for 5500 yards and 50 TDs, or that Justin Jefferson is definitely going to win the receiving triple crown.

2021 Vikings’ plays to avoid

I’m not going to dump every play out here. I’m just going to highlight a few that seemed symptomatic of the problem with the Vikings’ passing offense in 2021 – that is not giving guys a chance to make a play. The attitude of “just get the ball to your playmakers and let them make a play” might be okay in some cases, but in the examples below it simply has no chance of working.

The Vikings’ first play is a 3rd-and-6 on the second-to-last drive versus the Cardinals – a checkdown to Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah dropped the pass, but I’m looking at player spacing and what choice Cousins has:

Even if Abdullah hangs on, is there any chance at all of making that first-down marker? No. This was just a simple out route that the defender could sit on and destroy the play. Did Cousins have a better option? Not really, as the three receivers past the first-down line were bracketed and a pass to the right flat looks like it would run the risk of turning into a pick-six. Abdullah was the only option and even if he caught it, the Vikings punt.

[WARNING: Stop reading now to avoid trauma]

The Vikings’ second play is a first down… the Vikings’ first down in overtime versus the Ravens following Barr’s interception: 

The first thing I’m looking at is where Cook catches the ball: he’s about six or seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Then, does the play design do anything to set Cook up to make a play or just leave him in “one versus everyone”?

Micro-level, this is a swing pass to Cook in the flat. Macro level, the team was sitting at a record of 3-3, on the road versus a good opponent, with a chance to move to a winning record with a field goal.

It’s not an understatement to say that the entire season swung on this play, and they just hoped Dalvin Cook would beat the entire Ravens’ linebacker corps and secondary. Yep, completely on his own, and with a seven-yard disadvantage. I’m a Dalvin Cook fan – he’s really good at a lot of things – but there’s a limit to what he can do. Also, this looked like a planned pass to Cook, but what’s up with those receivers? If it was a pass to Cook, are they in a position to block? If they are attempting to run routes, they are basically taken hostage by the defensive backs.

Go back to Adofo-Mensah’s quote: “We talk about winning on the margins. You can win on the margins by putting him in a better situation; small things can have big outcomes.”

Those two plays look like examples of even when they did everything they could, the players were not put in a great situation. They weren’t terrible reads by Cousins; I didn’t see any other players obviously open. The plays just never had a chance.

Related: Historical impact of NFL coaching changes and how it relates to the Minnesota Vikings

Potential alternatives

To find alternatives, I was looking for similar plays from the Rams. This usually meant passes targeted to running backs, but not always. In some of these plays you could easily substitute a TE or WR. I’m also more interested in looking at if the player was set up for success more than how many yards the play gained.

The first example I found was a checkdown to Sony Michel versus the Ravens. Compare this to the Ameer Abdullah play. They fake Michel as a blocker coming through the middle of the line, so all the defenders dropped way off him. Then when he made the catch, he had a chance to make a move. There wasn’t a sideline or end zone view available for this game so I spliced a few together.

On the first view, Michel “executes” a play-action… really?  On my first look at this play my take was “that was a horrible play-action; Stafford didn’t even try to sell it…“.  But I wonder if that wasn’t a half-hearted play action on purpose to make the defense think it was a deep pass based on how far they drop off into coverage.  

View #2 – and everyone fell into deep coverage setting up Michel’s turn:

Michel had about five free yards and made a guy miss for a gain of 12. The worst case for this play was five or six yards and the series of downs staying on schedule. The only downside to including this play is that it seems a little too basic in terms of play-actions so maybe there isn’t anything special to it. I chose to include it anyway for three reasons:

1) There are options with the play. Stafford’s first look is deep. If the defense stuck with Michel, then there would have been an extra hole downfield. Unlike the Abdullah play, it wasn’t obvious what Michel was doing (at the snap he looked like a blocker).

2) It is the first look at a trend I saw: the Rams using backs as receivers in the middle of the field. I saw a lot of Vikings passes to backs on the sidelines. I like the Rams’ concept more: stretch the defense wide with receivers to give backs more space in the middle. This also gives the backs more space to operate and more than one direction to go.

3) The Rams were really good at hedging their bets on deep passes (more on this later).

The next play is versus the Packers. This was a dump-off to Darrell Henderson. This is to compare the dump-off to Cook versus the Ravens. This screen capture comes with the ball in the air:

What I noticed about this play: Henderson lined up in the slot rather than the backfield. Compared to Cook’s play versus the Ravens, there’s a five-yard head start versus what Cook had. Cook didn’t even attempt to block on that play, so he really didn’t gain much from starting deeper in the backfield. Second, Henderson caught the ball going forward for about a three-yard gain prior to making his cut.

Finally, Tyler Higbee is out there to at least generally get in between the defenders and Henderson. On the left side, the receivers aren’t involved, but they’re at least occupying some defenders. Like the Ravens’ play against Cook, the Packers are sitting on this pass, but those differences lead to a seven-yard gain on a dump-off to the back, rather than a one-yard loss.

The third play in this section, I was looking for a high-pressure play, so I went to the Super Bowl. This was a short pass to Henderson coming out of the backfield. Given its significance, I thought this play received surprisingly little attention (probably because it was an incomplete pass and the play after this was a much-discussed holding call on the Bengals). Here’s the play:

Remember, I was looking for play design, not necessarily results (I don’t care that this was incomplete). On replay, you can see Henderson complain for a flag that didn’t come (not pass interference because it’s too close to the line of scrimmage, but he might have a small case that the defender held him). To work, the ball needed to be about one step further inside to allow Henderson to clear the coverage linebacker.

I included it for a few reasons. This is an example of the Rams spreading out the defense with receivers and trying to get the ball to a running back in the middle of the field.  For being a goal-to-go play from the nine-yard line (i.e. everything is tight), Henderson has quite a lot of space to work with: He’s not pinned against the sideline, only one or two guys can stop him from scoring, and Cooper Kupp potentially blocking in the end zone.

The risk-reward is good, too. Obviously they have to connect on the pass, but the back should have a chance to get a head of steam and is moving in the right direction. The linebacker in coverage was standing in his zone (i.e. not running full speed) as Henderson went by; he had very little chance to cover Henderson with a full head of steam; the best he could do was hit him and hope Henderson drops the ball. And even in this covered case, with defenders packed in against the goal line, Henderson still had a chance to make the catch – he just needed to free up his right arm a bit more from the defender.  

These are some simple changes that can turn 0-3 yards into 4-8 yards; that’s enough to keep a drive on schedule.

Related: Evaluating Minnesota Vikings’ draft picks by selection history

Big play review

Time to look at the Rams trying to hit a game-breaking play. What? I said I wasn’t looking for big plays? Wow, five-minutes-ago-me really missed the boat on that! Obviously, we’re going to look at deep shots! Here is the formation. I marked the route Beckham is going to run and put a small indicator on the linebacker who is playing the run or covering a receiver out of the backfield (foreshadowing?)

On this play, Stafford looked first to the right for Beckham on the deep ball. But you will see in the next image Beckham is well-covered with safety help over the top.

This is where I think there is a huge opportunity to learn from the Rams. When the Rams would call a deep pass, they would often use their best receiver (Kupp) as the safety outlet. Look how the play unfolds (ball is highlighted light blue in the air):

Beckham is bracketed deep with a safety over the top (the safety is just coming off as the pass goes to Kupp), so the deep shot Stafford looked for wasn’t there. Maybe Van Jefferson is open coming across the field. The deep shot failed, but Kupp had an easy catch that he turned upfield for 11 yards – not a bad fallback option. 

Now, ask yourself this, if you have a deep pass called – you know there is a chance it will be covered – so you have to prepare for a checkdown. What do you want to plan for? I don’t know which NFC North team you might be a fan of, so I’ll give you options:

Option A) check to a running back who is set up to be destroyed by a linebacker (yes I counted you, you can put your hand down, Mr. Z)

Option B) have your quarterback flee in panic before being planted for a 12-yard loss

Option C) since you can’t afford any receivers, throw it to one of the fans who has camped out on the field because they think they own the place

Option D) check down to an elite route runner who is being “covered” by a hopelessly outclassed linebacker

I won’t tell you what the right answer is, but I think “Option D” is why Cooper Kupp had such consistent catch totals in 2021; he basically had two roles: First, he was a regular wide receiver; there were plenty of times Kupp ran routes downfield.

Second, the Rams would call deep passes to a combination of Van Jefferson, Odell Beckham Jr., and Robert Woods and run Kupp on short routes underneath to be the safety outlet. This resulted in Kupp getting a lot of 6-12 yard gains on plays where the deep guy didn’t come open.

The Vikings should have the personnel to do this too, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they split up Kupp’s role. Justin Jefferson takes the downfield work, where Kupp was the primary read. Adam Thielen has an ideal skill set to be the safety valve guy (in addition to his normal WR2 role) when the Vikings run a deep combination to KJ Osborn and Justin Jefferson.

In theory, it should be even easier to get Thielen open for this type of checkdown work because he’s not the primary focus of the defense like Kupp was.  Even better, look at that play by the Rams and imagine if the tight end on the left side is Irv Smith Jr. instead of Kendall Blanton; Irv would be a legitimate threat to go deep on the play. 

Related: 3 Minnesota Vikings trade scenarios during 2022 NFL Draft

All the little stuff matters

None of the Rams’ plays I highlighted are difficult throws or reads, but they could provide the five yards needed to keep a drive moving. Hitting on two or three of these a game should be enough to avoid the single three-and-out needed to move the Vikings up from just “better than average” to a top-five offense.

If you enjoyed this piece, please consider hopping over to Purple Pain Forums and debating with other Minnesota Vikings fans about not only this topic, but so much more!