just The Minnesota Vikings officially hired Kevin Stefanski as their offensive coordinator on Wednesday, removing the interim tag that the team’s play caller held over the final three weeks of the season.
While it appeared Stefanski put some band aids on issues the Vikings had offensively during his games against Miami, Detroit and Chicago, clearly the offense still had its warts as they struggled in the first part of the Week 16 win over Detroit and then came up short against the Bears.
Now Stefanski, who has been with the organization for 13 years and held multiple position coaching positions, will have a chance to carry over the things that worked and fix the things that did not have success.
With that said, here are the five biggest issues the Vikings had on offense and how we may see Stefanski attack them…
The Vikings averaged the lowest yards per completion in the NFL
With issues protecting Kirk Cousins, the Vikings threw a large number of quick passes without much success. Of 606 attempts, Cousins threw 425 under 10 yards through the air and averaged just 5.2 yards per attempt on throws behind the line of scrimmage and 5.9 yards per attempt on throws that traveled between 1-10 yards, according to ESPN splits. In comparison, Case Keenum picked up 5.7 and 6.2 YPA, respectively, in 2017.
The difference isn’t massive, but it’s telling. One of the reasons for the boom in passing stats is that the best offensive minds have figured out ways to make the most out of short throws. In Sean McVay’s system in Los Angeles, Jared Goff is picking up 6.2 and 6.9 yards per attempt on attempts behind the line and between 1-10 yards.
There are a number of ways the short passing game can be improved, starting with the use of Dalvin Cook and the screen pass game. In 2017, Jerick McKinnon averaged 8.3 yards per reception. The Vikings could get even more out of Cook if they commit to more short throws in his direction.
Also over the final three games, Kyle Rudolph caught 16 passes on 17 targets. He is known as a red zone threat, but he also averaged 7.6 yards per target on first-and-10 and gained six first downs on eight targets on third or fourth-and-short. Tweaking his usage might help Cousins find success in the short passing game.
Another element might simply be the Vikings finding another playmaker at receiver or tight end.
The Vikings tied for 16th in turnovers after four straight years of ranking top 10
One of Mike Zimmer’s core beliefs is that his team can’t win if they turn the ball over. While turnovers may be random in many cases, it’s clear from the numbers between 2014 and 2017 that Zimmer’s teams did not give the ball away. This year was different. Not only did the Vikings give it away more often, they also tacked on 35 points to the opponent’s scoring with pick-sixes and fumbles returned for touchdowns.
Considering the fact that Cousins has always struggled with fumbles, there might not be huge changes the Vikings can make to fix his turnover issue, but they can avoid asking him to drop back well over 600 times. Pro Football Focus studied how outside vs. inside pressure impacts quarterbacks and found that outside pressure causes more game-changing plays — as you might expect — so the focus for Stefanski may be to find ways to move Cousins in the pocket to mitigate some outside pressure.
Dalvin Cook averaged 21.3 touches per game in 2017 and 15.7 per game last year
It was very clear that one of Zimmer’s biggest frustrations with former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was that Cook wasn’t touching the ball enough. During his early career, the Vikings’ dynamic running back has averaged the same yards per touch (5.3) as Cowboys superstar Ezekiel Elliott but averaged 10 fewer touches per game than Elliott this season. Even with shortcomings on the Vikings’ offensive line, the two running backs’ yards per carry are identical for their careers.
While it’s been proven that play-action works whether you have an explosive running game or not, it certainly wouldn’t hurt the Vikings’ ability to hit on deep shots if opponents were focusing much of their efforts on slowing down Cook.
Stefanski made it clear he’s on the same page with Zimmer by getting Cook the ball 19 times per game over his three games in charge.
The offensive line will still needed schematic help
Zimmer talked extensively in his final press conference of the year about the need for a more creative run scheme. Cook’s running style seemed to be a perfect fit with the 2017 outside zone scheme, but that was only used from time to time last year. Opponents have also used motions and fake jet sweeps to confuse defenses and get linebackers out of run gaps.
Protecting Cousins will also require some creativity. Last year there were 17 QBs who threw more than 100 play-action passes and Cousins ranked 16th among them in percentage of drop backs with play-action. That doesn’t make much sense for a QB who excels on play-action throws. There are other ways of throwing off pass rushers like having linemen pull on pass plays to give a run look up front or simply by using players to their strengths. Brian O’Neill and Pat Elflein are both known as athletic linemen whose quickness and talent for hitting in space can be used in the passing game as well as the run.
Opponents will look to take away Diggs/Thielen on third down
Again, another weapon would help here, but scheme also has to play into getting Diggs and Thielen open in big situations. As last season wore on, defenses started to double team them often when the Vikings were in third-and-long. Between Diggs and Thielen, Cousins picked up just 17 first downs on 49 throws in their direction on third downs with more than six yards to go.
Of course, the best way to avoid that is avoid third-and-long, but when the Vikings do need 7-10 yards on third down, Stefanski will have to find ways to create open space, whether it’s through route combinations, formations, motions etc. or scheme other options for his quarterback. Last year only Andy Dalton, Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and Josh Rosen averaged fewer yards per attempt on third downs with more than six yards to go, per Pro Football Reference.