The Minnesota Vikings have been without Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen since their first drive against the Detroit Lions in Week 7. From that point on, quarterback Kirk Cousins has the second highest quarterback rating in the NFL and the Vikings offense ranks in the top 10 in yards per play. Certainly they are not a better offense without Thielen but the changes that they were forced to make during his absence have made the Vikings a better overall offense.
Overcoming his hamstring injury started back on the second and third day of the NFL draft. The Vikings drafted tight end Irv Smith with hopes of him becoming a versatile weapon. During Thielen’s absence he became just that.
“Since Thielen has been out since the Detroit game, we’ve had other players step up…all the sudden Irv Smith becomes a big part of the offense, you’re seeing him get split out not just at the tight end position, but they’re moving him to the slot, they’re moving him outside because he’s a very good athlete to create those types of mismatches,” general manager Rick Spielman said during a session with the TC media.
Smith has 20 receptions since Thielen’s injury. Prior to Week 7 he only managed seven grabs. His usage has gone up and up, peaking last week against Denver when he took 76% of total snaps.
Bisi Johnson, a seventh-round pick, began emerging several weeks prior to the Pro Bowler’s absence with nine receptions in the first six games. After stepping into Thielen’s receiving role, he made 15 grabs over the past five games including two touchdowns.
Cousins spread the ball around to other options as well, hitting veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph 20 times in the last five weeks after only completing nine passes his way to open the year.
The effect of players not named Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook rising to the challenge allowed the two stars to play similar roles rather than having vastly increased usage. Over the past five games Diggs has 23 catches for 459 yards and Cook 22 for 242. Those numbers are remarkably similar to the first six games with Diggs and Cook both making 23 grabs.
However, the target share has been spread out much more over the past five weeks. In the first six games, Thielen/Diggs/Cook made up 98 of 143 total targets (68.5%). Over the last five games the top three most targeted options, Diggs/Cook/Johnson, have made up only 52.5% of Cousins’ total throws.
Continuing to get Diggs the ball without forcing it in his direction has also been key to maintaining offensive success without Thielen. Cousins has completed 74.2% of throws in Diggs’ direction since Thielen’s injury.
Gary Kubiak talked about how the offensive staff has worked to get Diggs open even with opponents putting more emphasis on stopping him.
“He has gotten doubled, you name it,” Kubiak said. “People are trying to take him out of the football game. What we’re having to ask him to do, and I’ve told him this, when you have a receiver on the field who you’re trying to get the ball to and people are taking him away, you really have to challenge the receiver. You have to move. You have to motion and you have to do things maybe you’re not comfortable with so we can get you open. He’s bought in to that and a great example of that in the second half [against Denver].”
The Vikings have gotten more players involved and sustained Diggs’ success without fundamental changes to how Cousins has been used. His percentage of play-action passes and deep shots are nearly identical between Weeks 1-6 and 6-11. One thing that has greatly helped Cousins that may be partially due to scheme adjustments is the improvement in pass protection.
Over the past five games Cousins has been pressured on 33.7% of dropbacks, which ranks 16th in the NFL in that time span. Over the opening half dozen games he was the third most pressured QB at 42.2% of dropbacks — a rate that was higher than 2018.
Center Garrett Bradbury’s improvement has made a significant difference. He struggled out of the gate, giving up 13 pressures in the opening six weeks, the third most in the NFL and graded by PFF standards as the worst center in the league. Since then he’s 16th graded center and has allowed seven QB pressures.
Tackle Riley Reiff has improved during Thielen’s absence as well, ranking as the eighth best tackle in the NFL and giving up just seven pressures. There are 41 tackles with more pressures allowed over the past five games.
In the schematic part of that, Cousins has had great success getting the ball out quick. Per PFF, he has a 117.6 rating when he throws the ball before 2.5 seconds, which is up from 104.1 rating early in the season.
Assuming Thielen returns next Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks — in a game that is likely to have huge implications on the NFC playoff seeding — the Vikings will be at full strength for the first time since their win over the Lions in Week 7. But they will be even stronger considering the lessons learned from the offensive staff in getting players like Smith, Rudolph and Johnson more involved and finding ways to protect Cousins.
Maybe Kevin Stefanski and the offensive staff would have come across the same solutions without Thielen’s injury but it’s possible that long term it was a blessing in disguise for the Vikings offense.