From the opening drive of Sunday’s 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, it was clear that the Minnesota Vikings were going to stick to the concepts that have worked for quarterback Kirk Cousins throughout this season and his career.
After the game, receiver Adam Thielen said that the Vikings’ deception made it difficult for the Dolphins to know whether they were running or passing. Receiver Aldrick Robinson said on Monday that the simpler gameplan “allowed Kirk to play fast.” Tight end David Morgan remarked that using fullback CJ Ham and getting everyone involved was beneficial to the offense.
So what exactly worked so well? How did interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski set up Kirk Cousins for success? Let’s have a look…
Even with Sunday’s barrage of play-actions, Kirk Cousins still ranks 28th in the percentage of drop-backs that use play-action. His quarterback rating on such plays is 108.7. When he does not use play-action, his rating is 96.6, per Pro Football Focus.
Cousins has the ability to make strong, accurate throws on the move when he is asked to roll outside the pocket on designed bootlegs. On the Vikings’ first touchdown, Stefanski dials up a fake handoff to the left, drawing the eyes of all Miami’s linebackers and the defensive back assigned to Stefon Diggs.
Notice tight ends Tyler Conklin and Kyle Rudolph give the look that they are double-team blocking the defensive end, then both leak out to the flat. Had Diggs been covered, Cousins might have been able to find Conklin for a short gain or Adam Thielen coming across the field.
One of the major benefits of play-action rollouts is that Cousins had plenty of time to let his receivers’ routes develop and if a receiver hadn’t come open, he could have simply tossed the ball out of bounds and moved on.
A Pat Shurmur staple of the 2017 Vikings offense — and a similar trait of the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints — is using the same exact look on a run play as play-action later in the game. Stefanski pulled this simple, yet effective, concept off to perfection.
Late in the second quarter, the Vikings put in an extra lineman, two tight ends and a fullback to slam up the middle for a 1-yard gain. Early in the second half, they lined up identically, even used the same shift, and ran play-action for a 33-yard catch by Conklin.
One notable aspect of the successful run, by the way, is that the Dolphins’ linebacker No. 52 followed the fullback and allowed Murray to slam forward for the first down.
It’s very clear that Cousins flourishes with play-action. In 2017 he put together a 118.7 rating on 129 play-action drop backs with Washington and had a 100.8 rating in 2016 and averaged more than 10 yards per attempt. So even if the Dolphins made some mistakes that playoff teams might not, it’s still a winning strategy.
How much more could they use it? Cousins currently has play fakes on 19.9 percent of his throws while the league leader Jared Goff uses it 34.4 percent of the time.
Keeping any quarterback clean is important. Literally every QB in the NFL is better when given time to throw. Cousins has a 107.1 rating when kept clean and the eighth highest “accuracy percentage,” according to PFF.
Against the Dolphins, Stefanski mixed in packages in which only three receivers went out for patterns and the Vikings had seven blockers taking on four rushers.
On Robinson’s 40-yard touchdown, Diggs and Thielen ran crossing routes, which take time to develop, and Cousins’ target out-raced his man one-on-one. When the Dolphins’ safety came up to play “robber,” the look turned from cover-2 to one high safety, leaving Robinson in a track meet.
Cousins had so much time and room that he might as well have been throwing the ball around the back yard.
Another example of using extra blockers came when the Dolphins sent six rushers, but the Vikings were prepared with both tight ends staying in to block and Murray looking for a man to block before going out into the flat.
The Vikings shut down Miami’s blitz and gave Thielen time to run a slow-developing route. Cousins stands in a huge pocket, steps and fires a bullet to the sideline right on time as Thielen is coming back to the ball.
It isn’t that the Vikings never used extra protectors through the first 13 games, rather it speaks to a more concerted effort to give Cousins time and trust Thielen/Diggs to get open even if they have to beat more players in coverage. This is especially effective against zone. As you can see, the Dolphins have multiple defenders who aren’t anywhere in the vicinity of a Viking receiver.
Quick and easy
When Cousins is getting the ball out in under 2.5 seconds, he has a 100.0 rating and 72.2 percent completion percentage. Early in the year, it appeared that short, quick throws were going to be the Vikings’ main strategy when throwing. They especially used WR screens against the Eagles, but couldn’t find as much effectiveness in the quick throws as they went along.
Here are three examples of making Cousins’ job easy and creating positive plays. The first clip is a 6-yard out to Diggs against a cornerback playing off coverage. It’s a gimme positive play for a first down. The second example is a screen to Diggs that creates 12 yards and the third is another bootleg in which Cousins has short, intermediate and deep options. He checks to the short option for a solid gain.
While Cousins’ pick-six came on a quick screen, it’s a rare occurrence that a throw coming out that fast will end up an INT. As the Vikings focus on controlling clock and keeping drives alive, they will need to succeed on short throws like the ones above.
Red zone runs
Before the start of this season, PFF tweeted stats showing Cousins can struggle at times throwing inside the red zone. The Vikings ranked 23rd in red zone success coming into Sunday’s game and then went 4-for-6 on touchdowns with two field goals against Miami. Part of the reason they struggled was asking Cousins to throw too often.
Coming into Sunday’s game the Vikings had run just 33 times inside the 20, second least in the NFL. The league averages a first down or touchdown inside the red zone on 31 percent of runs, but the Vikings were only getting a first or TD on 19 percent before the Miami win in which Dalvin Cook scored twice and Murray added another.
Giving the ball to Murray, who has been a touchdown machine during his career, and the dynamic Cook takes pressure off Cousins to make tight-window throws in the red zone.
The bottom line
Whether the Vikings’ offense is completely fixed is yet to be seen, but the process in which Stefanski used to make life easier on Cousins was one that can carry over to the final two weeks of the season and into the playoffs. All these concepts were ones used throughout the year, though they were rarely in a conducive and consistent manner.