Bill Walsh was known as one of the first coaches to script the plays that he planned to use to open a game on offense.
Now every team in the NFL uses a similar process. By looking at the scripted plays, we can get a sense for how effectively a play caller is doing his job preparing for the opposing defense.
In the case of the 2019 Minnesota Vikings, they have ranked among the best teams with scripted plays, producing the seventh most first quarter points. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has astronaumical numbers in the first 15 minute with a 73.8% completion, 8.1 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, zero interceptions, three sacks, 126.4 rating
The Vikings’ opening drive against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday demonstrated exactly why they have dominated the early parts of games on offense. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski dialed up a number of different looks with twists that had a very specific reasoning. Let’s have a look at the process and execution of the Vikings’ scripted plays vs. LA…
On the first drive, the Vikings used two jet sweeps, which are simply handoffs to a wide receiver who is coming in motion behind the quarterback. Combined the two runs — one by Bisi Johnson and the other by Stefon Diggs — totaled just 10 yards but their effect on the Chargers was notable on the second drive.
The first two clips in the video below show the Johnson 6-yard rush and then a jet motion during the Vikings’ second drive that moved the Chargers’ safety out of the box, giving Minnesota seven blockers on seven men. Had the Vikings not run the sweeps earlier in the game, the safety may have been less likely to jump at the fake. The same safety eventually makes the tackle but not until Dalvin Cook has hit the hole for a 6-yard gain.
Later in the drive (clip 3), the Vikings start out of an I-formation with two tight ends on the strong side but they shift into a single-back shotgun formation with CJ Ham the lone player in the backfield. The Chargers are forced to shuffle and communicate. The last player expected to get the ball, the fullback, ends up with a chunk of yardage on a screen pass.
The fourth clip shows a small but effective shift by Cook in the backfield. He shifts just enough for the linebacker to give away that he’s got the flat area, which means he would be tracking Cook out of the backfield. That gives Cousins the indicator that Kyle Rudolph will be open for a third down conversion.
Here is an additional example of using motion with the fullback to move a player out of the box.
The Vikings rarely use the same personnel grouping for more than two plays in a row. Here’s the group they used on each play on the first drive:
Play 1: Three receivers, one tight end, one RB
Play 2: Two receivers, one tight end, two RBs (Cook, Abdullah)
Play 3: Two receivers, two tight ends, one RB (Irv Smith as outside receiver)
Play 4: Two receivers, two tight ends, one RB
Play 5: Two receivers, two tight ends, one RB
Play 6: Two receivers, two tight ends, one RB
Play 7: One receiver, two tight ends (Smith, Conklin), two RB (Boone, Ham)
Play 8: One receiver, two tight ends, two RB (Cook, Ham)
Play 9: Three receivers, one tight end, one RB
Play 10: Two receivers, two tight ends, on RB
Play 11: Zero receivers, two tight ends, two RB
In total the Vikings used 10 different skill players and five different personnel packages in 11 plays.
One of the most used concepts by the Vikings’ offense is play-action. The Vikings play-action on 32.8% of plays. The only QB with a higher percentage of play-action than Kirk Cousins is Lamar Jackson.
Stefanski only called for a play-fake twice on the opening drive but both times were highly effective. On the first clip tight end Kyle Rudolph blocks the defensive end and then slips out into the middle of the field wide open. The Vikings’ goal is often to send receivers deep and draw linebackers up with play-action to create space in the middle of the field.
The second play came at the goal line. With heavy personnel in the game, the Chargers attack the outside pitch fake and the defensive back on Irv Smith’s side takes several steps downhill before realizing that Cousins still had the ball. Smith beat his man one-on-one for the touchdown.
None of these elements of the Vikings’ offense are new but the sheer number of unique looks and details of the opening drive create problems for the opposition. They will need to continue the trend over the final two games and into the postseason in order to maximize their potential.