The Minnesota Vikings put on the explosive passing display they dreamed about when signing Kirk Cousins to an $84 million contract prior to the 2017 season.
Sunday’s win was the best game of his Viking career in yards per pass attempt (12.5) and scored the highest on ESPN’s 1-100 QBR system since he came to Minnesota. Clearly Stefon Diggs’ two catches of 50-plus yards were the drivers of the Vikings’ 38-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles but even removing the successful bombs Cousins went 20-for-27 for 222 yards and three touchdowns.
While there’s no question that the Eagles’ injuries at the cornerback position played a role in Cousins’ outstanding performance, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s use of tight ends made life difficult for Philadelphia.
The Vikings took advantage of Philly’s fear of Dalvin Cook and used big personnel packages to give the indication that they planned to run the ball down the Eagles’ throats when really they used multiple tight end sets and packages with fullback CJ Ham to create confusion and mismatches that had the Eagles scrambling.
You can see from the snap counts below that Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph was on the field for every play but he was flanked by either Smith or Ham for nearly the entire game and No. 3 tight end Tyler Conklin got his fair share of work as well. The result was the Eagles using three linebackers.
Vikings TE snap count
Kyle Rudolph – 70
Irv Smith – 38
CJ Ham – 34
Tyler Conklin – 11
Eagles linebacker snap count
Nathan Gerry – 61
Zach Brown – 57
Nigel Bradham – 28*
Kamu Grugler-Hill – 35
*left game with injury
On Monday head coach Mike Zimmer talked about the challenges that the depth of quality playmakers combined with the Stefanski-Kubiak scheme creates for defense.
“It’s difficult when you’ve got playmakers at running back, at the tight ends and the wide receivers, too,” Zimmer said. “The combination of that and then being able to run the ball some, being able to get it on the perimeter with the quarterback, I think all those things make it more difficult. When I’ve coached against this offense before, you’re always trying to catch the quarterback getting out of the pocket a couple times. You do that and you take away from something else. It makes you very disciplined defensively, understanding where you have to be and what you have to do.”
At US Bank Stadium on Sunday the Eagles did not stay disciplined defensively or catch the quarterback getting out of the pocket or understand where they had to be or what they had to do. And the tight ends (and fullback) often made that possible.
In the cut-ups below there are five instances of the Vikings using either multiple tight ends or 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) and having great success selling the run in order to create endless space for Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs or either tight end to work. The Eagles continued throughout the game to use eight-man boxes with base personnel (three linebackers) and the Vikings simply ate them alive.
In the first clip, rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. goes in motion, where he’s followed by a linebacker, giving Cousins the indication that the Eagles are in man coverage. The offensive line zone blocks right, drawing in the safety and linebacker on the play side.
Rudolph blocks the defensive end at first and then leaks into the flat, where he is wide open because Philly’s defenders are scrambling after the play-action. They ID’d Rudolph as a blocker, so the safety covers Conklin (No. 83) instead of Rudolph. The result is the No. 3 tight end being double teamed while the Pro Bowler is wide open in the flat for 18 yards.
Almost every time the Vikings used 12 or 21 personnel combined with play-fakes, the Eagles jumped out of their shoes. In the second clip, a play called “Red Rail” in the Kubiak system or “Whirl” concept (wheel + curl) is used. In a 2×2 set, Thielen and Diggs are on the far side and the two tight ends on the near side. The Eagles load the box and leave Malcolm Jenkins, a safety, alone on Thielen. That forces the single deep safety to get over the top of Thielen, leaving Diggs one-on-one with the off-coverage corner. Naturally Diggs smokes him.
The middle linebacker would normally be in a hook zone in the general area of where Diggs finished his route but since he took four steps in Cook’s direction, there was no underneath help for the cornerback.
In Clip 3 we can see again the Vikings using seven blockers and only two route runners plus the running back. Part of the reason Cousins was kept clean on 20 of 31 drop backs was the use of extra pass protectors. Usually you expect to make a sacrifice when fewer receivers go out but in this case, the Eagles’ defense more or less invited it.
On this play, Conklin and Rudolph block and only Smith and Thielen run routes. Thielen runs a go route to clear out space for Smith, who goes completely uncovered again because the linebackers bite on the play-fake. Again the three linebackers and extra safety in the box are rendered completely useless.
Clip 4 most obviously demonstrates the Eagles’ dedication (or obsession?) with Cook. The Vikings don’t even use play-action, they simply have Ham and Rudolph block and the linebackers and box safety attack the backfield. Cousins flips the ball easily to Thielen, whose cornerback was playing off. They play would have been more difficult to execute had the safety not followed Rudolph down the line of scrimmage.
The final two clips have shades of all the same concepts. Diggs and Thielen are the only receivers out on his third touchdown, yet he’s man-to-man covered. And on Cousins’ brilliant throw to Bisi Johnson on the run, the Eagles attempt to blitz but Rudolph and Smith pick it up, giving the QB only one man to escape (that just so happened to be Zach Brown, by the way).
Rudolph/Smith: 5-for-5, 65 yards, three first downs
Rudolph 10 PBLK snaps (78.2 PFF grade), Smith 4, Ham 3, Conklin 1
So what can we take away from the Vikings success using the formula of big personnel combined with play-fakes and two-receiver concepts on one side? A few things:
1 – The Vikings know exactly how much other teams are focused on Cook and are taking advantage of it.
2 – Irv Smith might not be winning you any fantasy championships but he is the dynamic weapon the Vikings hoped for when they drafted him. His ability to force opponents (though they shouldn’t!) to bring in extra linebackers gives them a massive edge in coverage. Most NFL teams use nickel packages 70% of the time and there are very few great linebackers in the league, so defenses are out of their element with three linebackers on the field. If Smith wasn’t good at football, this edge would be far less pronounced.
“Irv is playing well,” Zimmer said. :He gives us another weapon, if they do start trying to double Diggs and Thielen then you’ve got him and [Kyle] Rudolph and the back, [Dalvin Cook]. So the more weapons you can have, the better it is. He’s playing well, he’s been studying hard. He’s another guy that when you get the ball in his hands, he’s got a chance to do something with it.”
3 – Teams that use a single high safety against the Vikings are going to struggle to track Thielen/Diggs. Last year we saw the only way to slow them down was to double team both stars. It’s hard to do that when the Cook/big personnel is in the game.
4 – The adjustments to the Vikings offense will be interesting to watch, especially this week against a man-coverage team like the Detroit Lions who have twice the cornerback talent as the Eagles. They are unlikely to play base package since Justin Coleman, their nickel corner, is one of the top players on the Lions. Will they dare the Vikings to beat them on the ground? Will they send rushers straight up field rather than pursuing Cook?
5 – Credit to Rudolph. He’s being used regularly as a decoy and doing the job, which is every bit as valuable as his role as a receiving option.
“This is his best year, by far [as a blocker],” Zimmer said. “I think he’s put a lot of emphasis in it. I think he feels like, and you’d have to talk to him, but I know that he is working hard at it and that this is the best job that he’s done. I feel like knowing with (Dalvin) Cook back there and (Alexander) Mattison that we have a chance to gain some big yards in the running game. He’s really taken a lot of effort and put it into it.”