The Minnesota Vikings knew going into Philadelphia last Sunday that the Eagles’ defensive line presented an incredible challenge.
In order to negate Philly’s impressive pass rush, the Vikings opened the game with quick passes, completing four passes of 10 yards or fewer (not including a quick throw to Stefon Diggs that registered as a run play). Quarterback Kirk Cousins drove his team from the Vikings’ 25-yard line deep into Eagles territory and controlled the ball for more than six minutes.
It was hardly the only time the Vikings have moved the ball effectively using quick throws. In fact, Cousins has the shortest average depth of target in the NFL, according to NFL NextGen stats at just 6.4 air yards per throw.
Via NextGen, below is a look at every throw from Cousins against the Eagles. Notice that only six throws clear 10 yards through the air, but Cousins was able to hit on four of those throws.
The question is whether the Vikings should continue to focus their passing game on throws under 10 yards rather than trying to work the ball downfield more often.
The short answer is: Overall the Vikings’ offense has been effective.
They rank seventh in quarterback rating and seventh in adjusted net yards per attempt (yards per throw factoring interceptions and sacks). Despite giving up consistent pressure, Minnesota has only given up sacks on 5.8 percent of drop backs by Cousins, which is mid-pack at 16th in the NFL. And the Vikings are 10th in the league in the number of passes that have resulted in first downs.
Minnesota’s lack of running game has hurt their production, no doubt, but without Dalvin Cook at 100 percent, they have essentially replaced the running game with quick passes and creativity from offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Take the play below for example. Diggs goes in motion and comes underneath the formation for a swing pass that picks up seven yards. Philadelphia’s cornerback passes off Diggs to the safety when he motions, leaving a long way to go and through traffic in order for Malcolm Jenkins to track the receiver. Solid blocks by Adam Thielen and Aldrick Robison create space for Diggs to work.
On a subsequent play, DeFilippo’s design comes very close to breaking open a touchdown for Diggs, who is the lone receiver outside the numbers with a bunch formation to the quarterback’s right. Everything indicates outside zone run from the center over, but on the left side, tackle Riley Reiff and guard Tom Compton are two-on-two with the Eagles’ linebacker and cornerback.
Here is a closer look at the play design.
The play didn’t work in this case, but had Reiff and Compton been able to hold their blocks, Diggs would have walked into the end zone. If the same concept is used in the middle of the field, it has the potential to turn into a big play.
“The screen game is huge,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday. “You see more and more of it and all around the League now, especially off of play action, because linebackers start to hopefully get depth and get out of there and then the line has a chance to sift over toward to where they’re in front of the running back. Screens and play actions are typically things that we want to be really good at.”
That’s part of the short-pass strategy. Diggs turned one quick throw into 24 yards against the Eagles and has produced an explosive play off a quick pass at least once in nearly every game this season. Below is a play that puts the linebacker in a bind. Philly’s LB reads the backfield, which appears to be running power up the middle. So he charges forward aggressively, leaving a gap in the defense for Diggs. Again the Vikings’ star receiver is one juke or defender slipping away from a big play.
“The way the Eagles were playing it they were pressing the point, the second corner was over the top so we knew we had a chance at a little catch and run afterwards,” DeFilippo said. “Early on we thought, ‘Hey, this is a way we can accomplish a couple things.’ Number one, get the ball on the perimeter. So get the ball on the outside of the numbers. Number two, get the ball in one of our best playmaker’s hands. Number three, get the ball out of Kirk’s hands quickly to alleviate that pass rush when those guys are all greased up and ready to roll at the beginning of the game.”
One of the issues with running these types of plays throughout a game is that opponents can begin to pick up on tendencies. As the game wore on, the Vikings had less success hitting Diggs for big yards-after-catch plays.
On the play below, Jenkins reads Cousins’ play fake and immediately sprints toward Diggs, making the tackle for only a 2-yard gain.
The big-picture down side to a short-pass focused offense is: At 10.4 yards per completion, the Vikings are 26th in the NFL. Sustaining drives has been problematic at times. With points only produced on 31.0 percent of drives, the Vikings are 27th in the NFL, with the best team (New Orleans) scoring on 57 percent of drives. They are 25th in points per drive and 21st in touchdowns per drive — sitting at 19th in red zone touchdown percentage hasn’t helped much.
Coincidentally the Vikings were the lowest ranked team in yards per completion to make the playoffs in 2017, ranking 22nd. The No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL sat first, though the Super Bowl representatives were seventh and 16th. The 2016 Super Bowl teams ranked first and fifth and in 2015 the Panthers were third and Broncos 13th despite Peyton Manning’s struggles.
With all factors in mind, a reasonable conclusion could be that the Vikings can’t consistently use as many short throws as they did in Philly, but they shouldn’t require that many to move the ball. Not everyone has three star edge rushers and a premier defensive tackle. Cook and the running game should be more effective going forward and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cousins get more time to throw against a team like Detroit or the New York Jets and create a more balanced attack.
“When I talked about being multiple one of the things we said was quick game,” Cousins said Wednesday. “We’re gonna use the quick game, and we’re gonna use dropback, we’re gonna use movements, we’re gonna use movements, we’re gonna use play-action, all that, but the quicks will be a major part of that, so I don’t know if that’s really ever changed. I think we’ve always seen that as a staple of being an offense that’s doing a variety of things.”