When Kevin Stefanski first got his opportunity to call plays for the Minnesota Vikings late in the 2018 season, he noted that former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had been a great influence on his philosophies.
While Shurmur’s time in New York as a head coach has been tumultuous, his year in charge of the Vikings offense was nothing short of excellent. In guiding Case Keenum to the NFC Championship, Shurmur hit a lot of home runs with his play calling, including the Minneapolis Miracle throw from Keenum to Stefon Diggs.
But before the Vikings reached the playoffs in 2017, they were still trying to prove they could be legitimate contenders. In Week 13 they traveled to Atlanta to face a 7-5 Falcons team that was starting to come together. Early in the game Keenum struggled with accuracy and the Vikings managed just seven points in the first half. With the defense putting up a typical performance, Minnesota trailed by three points with 8:11 remaining in the fourth quarter and received the ball on their own 11-yard line.
And then Shurmur had a defining moment as the Vikings’ play caller. After Keenum completed three passes to get the Vikings to mid-field, Shurmur decided to pound the rock. He called for eight runs in a 10-play stretch to set up a 6-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. The final four plays were all gives to Latavius Murray.
In total the drive went 89 yards on 15 plays and took 8:15 off the clock. The Vikings won 14-9, helping them secure a home playoff game.
On Sunday night, Stefanski channeled his inner Shurmur.
With 7:01 left in the third quarter and trailing 21-20, Stefanski dialed up 10 straight running plays on a drive that took 6:59 and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Dalvin Cook.
Kirk Cousins said after the game that he’d never seen anything like it in his career. Mike Zimmer said it broke the Cowboys.
“It just breaks your will,” Zimmer said. “That’s the one thing with football is it’s a tough sport and if you allow people to run the ball like that against you then it really deflates you.”
The drive featured a mix of a number of different concepts that have worked particularly well for the Vikings this season and play to the strengths of their personnel.
On the first run of the drive, rookie Alexander Mattison is given a wide pitch out of a three tight end set that had all three TEs on the line of scrimmage.
When Leighton Vander Esch, who is known as a rising star linebacker in the NFL, worked his way past Rudolph, Mattison could have easily been caught in the backfield but he pounded through the tackle and tip-toed for a 4-yard gain (Clip 1).
“[Mattison] is a good player,” Zimmer said on Monday. “He runs hard, he’s physical. I think he averaged six-something (yards per carry), maybe, last night. But yeah, he’s a good back, and we’re glad we have him. He can take some of the carries off of Dalvin. I liked the way he finishes runs. He seems like he’s always falling forward, and is an aggressive style of runner.”
The Vikings stayed in heavy personnel packages to keep an extra linebacker on the field for most of the game. That turned out to be a disadvantage for the Cowboys. In the second clip, Stefanski calls for another pitch, this time with one tight end and fullback CJ Ham in the game. Ham slammed into linebacker Joe Thomas, taking him out of the play and helping to open a huge lane for Cook. The Vikings’ fullback played 26 total snaps and was a lead blocker on 17 of them.
At that point the Vikings were at the Dallas 32-yard line and had already picked up 28 yards on the ground. Why fix what isn’t broken? Cook’s 14-yard run was followed up with a 12-yard carry by Mattison, again with Ham as his lead blocker.
In Clip 3 the left side of the Vikings offensive line has a 3-on-2 matchup. Left tackle Riley Reiff and left guard Pat Elflein wall off the defensive end, leaving Ham to block Vander Esch one-on-one and Mattison with one man to beat. The former Boise State standout runs through a Jaylin Smith tackle and picks up 12 more yards.
The Vikings offensive line has struggled at times in pass protection this season but they rank ninth in the NFL by PFF’s grading system in run blocking. Between the runs and screens to Cook, they may have had their best game of the season against the Cowboys.
Clip 4 demonstrates the effect of the accumulation of successful runs. Mattison again got the ball, this time out out a three-receiver set. Reiff blocked the defensive end, who was lined up outside the tackle, leaving right guard Dakota Dozier to handle Smith (No. 54). The backup guard saw little resistance at that point, being easily pushed out of the way to open up a 16-yard carry.
After a penalty moved them back to the 5-yard line, Stefanski had plenty of options. Rudolph already caught a touchdown but why let the Cowboys off the hook when you can keep slamming the ball forward. On fourth down, they pitched outside and Rudolph got just enough of Vander Esch to take the exhausted linebacker out of the play and allow Cook to walk into the end zone.
All the while, Dak Prescott sat and watched.
While there’s no question that the 2019 NFL is driven by passing success, the Vikings improvement in the running game this season has been massive. They have jumped from 30th to second behind Stefanski’s play calling, improvements on the O-line and the Kubiak-Dennison combo that has succeeded on the ground for years.
The 10-run drive won’t be easily forgotten by opponents. It strikes fear into defenses and puts them on skates when the Vikings use play-action — which is at a higher rate than anyone else in the NFL.
All the philosophies that Shurmur deployed in ’17, including the screen passes that ate the Cowboys alive, have now been used by Stefanski. And if he continues to have the type of success that the Vikings offense had on Sunday night, he could also end up as a head coach.