When the Minnesota Vikings hired John DeFilippo this offseason, it was fair to believe they had brought in one of the top up-and-coming offensive minds in the NFL. After all, he had just played a role in winning the Super Bowl with Nick Foles under center.
The move not only failed to live up to expectations, it completely blew up in the Vikings’ face. Head coach Mike Zimmer announced Tuesday that the Vikings had fired DeFilippo following a poor performance against the Seattle Seahawks.
“John is a good football coach, he is a good man, hard worker, it was a very difficult decision,” Zimmer said via conference call. “I felt like we always had really good dialogue. I felt like there was a sense of urgency here in the last three weeks of the season of trying to improve, offensively especially, and trying to win these final three games of the season.”
In a “production based business,” the production under DeFilippo was stunningly bad. Heading into the final three games of the season, the Vikings rank 20th in points, 28th in percentage of drives that produce points, 22nd in yards per pass attempt and 23rd in yards per rush.
But those numbers do not tell the entire story.
One of the things that likely frustrated Zimmer was the offensive coordinator’s inability to stick with things that worked. It isn’t that DeFilippo lacked good ideas, he just seemed to move away from concepts that had success.
Here are five concepts that DeFilippo used effectively at times that new play caller Kevin Stefanski should use on a weekly basis rather than intermittently as his predecessor did…
With two talented running backs and a lack of a true No. 3 wide receiver, it would behoove the Vikings to use Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray on the field at the same time.
Cook has only lined up as a wide receiver 16 times in 350 snaps. One of those plays was a jet sweep in which Stefon Diggs lined up in the backfield. Cook created a solid gain on the play, which was lauded by Zimmer multiple times after the Vikings’ win against the Packers. Yet they did not use it again over the last two weeks.
Cook has the rare ability as a running back to run effective routes. In the Vikings’ first matchup with the Packers, he ran a slant route as an outside receiver and gained 24 yards.
When Cook returned from a hamstring injury against the Lions, he was used on the field at the same time as Murray on one play and it was nearly broken for a big play on a slot screen.
Cousins’ throw takes Cook backwards allowing the outside linebacker to track him down, but notice the room along the sideline with Laquon Treadwell blocking. The play had the potential to turn into a big gain.
Playing Murray and Cook together would also allow the Vikings to use play-action and throw passes to Cook as a receiver on those plays.
After the loss in Seattle, Cousins mentioned the fact that teams have been double teaming Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on long third downs. Opposing teams would have to offer more respect for Cook as a slot or outside receiver on third-and-long because of his explosive yards-after-catch abilities.
There isn’t much purpose to using Treadwell on third down. He’s gained a first down just 10 times on 26 targets over the last two seasons on third down.
Using Cook as a receiver also might help Murray find some rhythm. Since Cook returned, Murray has just 84 yards on 32 runs. In the weeks Cook was missing, Murray rushed 63 times for 322 yards (5.1 YPC).
The Vikings’ Pro Bowl tight end has been targeted 17 times on third down and has gained a first down 11 times. With defenses focusing so heavily on Thielen and Diggs, going in Rudolph’s direction makes sense considering his strong hands, ability to beat smaller defenders one-on-one and gift for finding gaps in the defense.
Have a look at the plays below. On third-and-7 against the Packers, the defense puts four players around Diggs and Rudolph is open in the flat for a first down. On the second play, he sits down in the zone and lunges forward for a first down. He was targeted seven times with seven catches against the Packers and has just five catches for 42 yards since then.
Where he can be the most effective is third-and-short.
On the play below from Week 2, DeFilippo dialed up a play-action look in which Rudolph leaked out into the flat wide open for an explosive play on third down.
The Vikings went 2-for-7 on third-and-short against the Seahawks and 0-for-2 on fourth down.
Rudolph’s red zone production has been surprisingly non-existent this season. Inside the red zone last year he caught 14 of 16 throws in his direction with six touchdowns. This year he’s caught three of 10 passes his way with two TDs (splits via Pro-Football Reference).
According to Pro Football Focus, Cook has 30 runs for 130 yards going to the outside (4.3 yards per carry). Aside from one 70-yard rush, Cook is averaging 3.2 yards per carry between the tackles.
One of his most successful runs this season came on a rush to the outside with right tackle Brian O’Neill and center Pat Elflein pulling.
The Vikings lauded both players in the draft for their athleticism. In fact, O’Neill is one of the fastest offensive linemen ever at the NFC Combine. You can see on the play above how quickly he flies into the flat and drives the defensive back 20 yards down the field.
We didn’t see the Vikings go back to O’Neill pulling or getting outside on screens to Cook very often over the last two games.
The rookie from Pitt has struggled at times taking on defensive ends one-on-one because of his lack of power. The solution could be to get him on the move on a regular basis.
Following the loss to Seattle, Cousins went into detail on the difficulty of beating double teams for Thielen and Diggs in those third-and-long situations.
“The only piece that I notice is truly different from the first three, four games of the year would be there were two third downs earlier where they truly were doubling Adam and Stefon in a way that they’re not going to get the ball, they shouldn’t get the ball” Cousins said.
Against the Patriots, DeFilippo dialed up a route for Thielen to beat a double team and it nearly worked for a huge gain. Thielen runs a stop-and-go and got both defenders to slow down and then accelerated away from them in open field.
But the Vikings were unable to come up with another shot play into Diggs or Thielen when they were double covered. They simply cannot let opposing teams eliminate their best players in big spots. There have to be answers to opponents’ adjustment to the incredible start to the season by Diggs and Thielen.
Stefanski may also have to prod Cousins to throw in the direction of Diggs or Thielen when they are doubled. Earlier this year, Bill Belichick explained a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots’ website. Why did it work? Brady threw the ball in a place only his receiver could get it….
Bill Belichick breaks down the film on all the best plays from last week's win. pic.twitter.com/hqrkRG2sr0
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 13, 2018
In a league dominated by stars, may sound silly to say the Vikings have sorely missed their No. 2 tight end David Morgan, but he was a big asset for the 2017 version and was used as an effective blocker and to give defenses run looks in play-action earlier this year.
Here is an example when the Vikings went with three tight ends and ran a levels play with Thielen going deep and No. 3 TE Tyler Conklin going wide open in the intermediate level. Cousins misses the throw but it was clear the 49ers were thrown off by the run look at play-action, creating an opportunity for a big play.
Conklin has not come through as a blocker, so the Vikings should consider using fullback CJ Ham more often on the line of scrimmage.
Against the Bears, Ham was in as the No. 2 tight end on a play-action rollout that nearly resulted in a touchdown that would have changed the game against the Bears.
Ham has only been in on seven pass blocking snaps this year but has not allowed a pressure per PFF. He was the third highest graded running back/fullback pass blocker by PFF last season.
Using multiple tight ends to create mismatches and help with protection has become more and more commonplace in the NFL. The Seahawks used multiple TEs and extra linemen routinely against the Vikings’ defense to help their rushing attack on Monday night.
According to SharpFootballStats, the Vikings have only used 12 personnel (two TE, one RB) on 68 pass plays this year. Per Football Outsiders, the Vikings were one of only three teams to use two TEs on more than 300 pass plays last season.
The bottom line
Clearly the brief DeFilippo era was not a success in Minnesota. Had the Vikings been a budding young team, it’s likely he would have gotten far more opportunity to learn from miscues and correct problems. Instead on a win-now team, he’s out of a job. Now Stefanski has an opportunity to take some of the elements of DeFilippo’s offense that worked and combine them with his own ideas and the concepts used by former OC Pat Shurmur. Of course, he’s only got three weeks in the midst of a playoff race to figure it out. That won’t be an easy task.