Was that Kevin Stefanski on the sideline or Pat Shurmur?
In 2017, the Minnesota Vikings were forced into using backup quarterback Case Keenum for the majority of the season and they still posted the 10th most points in the NFL. Why? The unstoppable combination of talented playmakers and a play caller who was in tune with all the talents of those playmakers.
In Sunday’s 42-30 win over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, the Vikings’ first-year play caller was in perfect rhythm with quarterback Kirk Cousins and his gifted group of weapons — even without Adam Thielen for the majority of the game.
The Vikings put up 503 total yards with 337 coming through the air and running back Dalvin Cook taking care of the rest. They averaged 7.1 yards per play (league average is 5.6) and went 6-for-10 on third down. In ’17 Shurmur-like fashion, Stefanski got everyone who was healthy involved. Three running backs carried the ball and seven players made catches.
“We’re running the ball, play-action pass, converting on third downs, pocket’s been clean, offensive line has been playing with great intensity, we just keep trying to get better every day,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.
Over the past three weeks, Cousins has looked much more like the quarterback who ascended to the top 10 in 2016 in both traditional stats like yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns and tracking data from Pro Football Focus. Since struggling in a loss against Chicago, he has three straight games with QB ratings over 135 — the first time in his career to do so. His 141.4 rating on Sunday was the sixth highest of his career.
“He’s playing the best I’ve seen him play since he’s been here, obviously,” Zimmer said. “It’s a credit to him, it’s a credit to offensive coaches, what they are doing and I feel like we are playing to his strength.”
Cousins has been especially effective at creating explosive plays, hitting on five of 10 throws that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, including a highlight-reel touchdown pass to Adam Thielen on a bootleg to his left.
“I think our coaches have done a great job with gameplans and with keeping us in a good position,” Cousins said. “A lot of our third downs today were manageable. We’re not in third-and-12 over and over and that makes a big difference in your ability to convert them. I felt like when the play calls were coming in I was in agreement with them so many times feeling like it was going to give us a great chance.”
Holy boots! The Vikings play-action game has come alive these last three weeks as Kirk Cousins has thrown 6 TDs using PA, including 3 Sunday, and had at least 150 yards passing using PA in these games. He had 1 such game with the Vikings prior. He went… https://t.co/lFqtrEHWMt
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) October 20, 2019
Both Zimmer and Cousins pointed to the running game being a driving factor to the offense’s overall success. Last year Zimmer said his team wasn’t using enough balance in the running game and failed to create explosive passing plays off play-action. Sunday’s game featured 34 pass attempts and 33 runs (minus kneel downs).
Maximizing the strengths of Cook has been another victory for the offensive staff. He gained 142 yards on the ground against the Lions and put the dagger in their back with a touchdown that Zimmer called “the most impressive 2-yard run I’ve seen in awhile.”
It hasn’t hurt that Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison have a long history of success with running backs and that the Vikings designed their offensive line to execute on the ground — and it certainly helps to have a running back who can turn a loss into a gain nearly every time he touches the ball. Coming into the game in Detroit the Vikings ranked seventh in rushing Expected Points Added (via Pro Football Reference).
Whether it’s because the Vikings had a wakeup call after their struggles in Chicago or gained confidence from lighting up mediocre defenses, things are starting to come together in a similar fashion as 2017. The schedule now opens the door for the trends to continue. Over the next four weeks they will face the 28th, 20th, 16th and 9th rated defenses by EPA (prior to Sunday), so there will be plenty of chances to keep rolling on offense.