The New England Patriots are playing the type of football that Mike Zimmer wants for his team.
In Sunday’s AFC Championship game, the Patriots ran the ball 48 times, passed 46 times, converted 13-of-19 third downs and held the ball for 43:59 compared to Kansas City’s 20:53 possession time. In regulation only four of 16 third downs required more than five yards to gain for a first down.
New England basically checked off everything Zimmer talked about wanting for the Minnesota Vikings’ offense: A run game that allows his team to hold onto the ball and strikes enough fear into opponents to be effective in play-action passes along with third-and-short situations aplenty.
In Stefanski’s first press conference after being hired as the full-time OC, he talked about his interpretation of Zimmer’s repeated requests throughout last season to improve the ground game.
“I think what Coach Zim talked about was balance and that’s going to be what we want to do moving forward,” Stefanski said. “We just don’t want to be predictable. I can’t tell you that we’re always going to run it or we’re always going to pass it. We’re going to try to be balanced and not be predictable.”
There are two approaches to becoming unpredictable when it comes to using personnel. The Los Angeles Rams, who will face the Patriots in the Super Bowl, use three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back nearly 100 percent of the time. Head coach Sean McVay believes that it’s difficult for defenses to spot tendencies. Rams running back Todd Gurley also rarely faces an eight-man box.
Sunday’s NFC title game presents a clash of approaches to mixing offensive personnel. #Rams coach Sean McVay offered me some insight earlier this season on why 11 personnel is practically all they do: https://t.co/yA0V83vA3V pic.twitter.com/Y4WiEjnPh0
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 18, 2019
The Patriots take the exact opposite approach — and we are very likely to see the Vikings lean more toward New England’s model this year.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used 10 different skill-position players for at least 15 plays in Sunday’s victory over Kansas City. The team’s three running backs split the workload almost evenly with Sony Michel taking 34 snaps, James White playing 33 and Rex Burkhead receiving 30 plays.
Turns out that there was a player in the backfield that saw even more action than Michel, White and Burkhead: Fullback James Develin.
How old-school was the Patriots' game plan yesterday?
Fullback James Develin played more snaps in the AFC Championship game than the fullbacks from 11 teams over the ENTIRE REGULAR SEASON.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 21, 2019
Vikings followers are familiar with Develin. In the Vikings’ 24-10 loss to the Patriots he carried the ball four times, including two touchdown runs, and caught one pass for nine yards.
High snap counts are nothing new for New England’s 6-foot-3, 255-pound workhorse. He was on the field for the second most offensive plays (398) in the NFL this season, behind only San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk (662).
According to SharpFootballStats, the Pats used 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) on 21 percent of plays, the second highest in the NFL behind only the 49ers.
The 49ers, of course, are operated by Kyle Shanahan, son of Mike Shanahan, who was largely influential in the style of new Vikings assistant coach Gary Kubiak.
The last time Kubiak was in charge of an offense, in 2016, the Denver Broncos had the third most used fullback on rushing plays in Andy Janovich. In 2014, when Kubiak was OC of the Ravens, they used Juszczyk in 454 snaps, the third most total by any fullback that year. In 2012, Kubiak’s Houston Texans had the second most used fullback in James Casey.
Last season Vikings fullback CJ Ham ranked ninth in offensive plays among fullbacks with just 140 snaps.
We can expect to see more of Ham in Stefanski’s 2019 offense. The Vikings’ new OC was also influenced by Pat Shurmur, who wasn’t afraid to use his versatile fullback.
“He’s not talked about often…when he’s in there he does a really, really good job,” Shurmur said in 2017. “You saw the other day he caught the checkdown and made yards after the catch. We’ve thrown him a screen pass. He can catch the ball. That’s No. 1. It’s a huge comfort for a play caller. And obviously he’s really good at blocking.”
Ham has been effective in multiple areas, catching 18 passes on 22 targets at 8.5 yards per reception over the last two years and gave up zero pressures in 37 pass blocking snaps. Under Shurmur in ’17 he gained six first downs on eight carries.
Zimmer has emphasized play-action passes, which can be helped by forcing opponents to put more linebackers on the field. According to SharpFootballStats, Kirk Cousins averaged 8.6 yards per attempt in 21 personnel.
The Vikings’ top goal this offseason is finding ways to put Cousins in situations where he can succeed. If they can use Ham to help create third-and-short situations could bolster his output. Cousins had the third best rating (132.3) in the NFL on third downs with less than five yards to go. He ranked 20th in rating on third downs with more than six yards to gain.
It may seem old school to use the fullback more often, but it’s been working for the Kubiak-style offense for a long time and it’s worked exceptionally well for the Patriots this year.