The Minnesota Vikings pulled off an impressive overtime upset in New Orleans on Sunday, eliminating the 13-3 Saints to move on to next Saturday’s matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. What elements of the victory should they look to use again in the Bay Area? Let’s have a look…
(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)
From the opening drive of Wild Card Sunday, the Saints played two deep safeties with the aim to keep Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in front of them. Diggs was second in the NFL in yards per catch and Thielen gained 13.9 yards per grab in a limited regular season. New Orleans understood that the Vikings can turn into a quick-strike offense if they don’t have deep help but that opened up opportunities for Dalvin Cook to run against a seven-man box.
To demonstrate how effective Cook was against the lighter boxes: On runs that were not in the red zone or in the final quarter when the Vikings were trying to kill clock, their superstar running back picked up 5.5 yards per carry on 15 such runs.
Teams have routinely tried to stack the box against Cook this year and gotten burned on play-action shots down the field. Kirk Cousins finished the year No. 1 in play-action passer rating at 129.2. He threw 14 touchdowns, two interceptions and averaged an outstanding 9.7 yards per attempt when using a play-fake.
But the Saints were intent on keeping him from going downfield on play-action throws. Cousins only used play-action on 13 of his 33 drop backs on Sunday.
One of those drop backs, however, came in overtime after a Cook 11-yard rush against a seven-man box.
The video below shows the Saints with a single-high safety look and eight men in the box on Cousins’ deep shot to Thielen that set up the game-winning score. Naturally it came off play-action.
On Cousins big throw in OT.
Helps to have two big-time WRs
Diggs runs a sting or corner post on the left
Thielen runs an angle corner on the right
FS opens to Diggs so Cousins throws to Thielen
Cousins unleashes a beautiful high arcing pass pic.twitter.com/pjvP6IIeS0
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) January 7, 2020
Aside from the 43-yard completion to Thielen, Cousins averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt when using play-action. But it only takes one big gain to change the game and the Vikings waited until the exact right time to take advantage.
“We thought we had a chance on some of those shot plays, and we didn’t get them off earlier in the ballgame,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Monday. “But we continue to look for them. It’s just part of the offense, and we’re going to try and get some of those shots in there. Like I said last night, when you get in overtime you’re trying to win the game. It’s not like we want to play two more quarters or something like that.”
The 49ers defense has looked much more penetrable than in the first eight weeks of the season but they will likely try to follow a similar pattern to the Saints in attempting to stop Cook with seven men in the box in order to slow down deep throws. But if the Vikings keep moving the ball effectively on the ground, they will eventually get their chance. There might be a tendency to force something down field but patience paid off on Sunday at the Superdome and it might again in San Francisco.
When the play-actions aren’t there, the Vikings can always look to their running backs to make plays in the passing game. On Sunday, Cook and Alexander Mattison combined for 46 yards after catch on four receptions and five targets. Those yards came on checkdowns when Cousins was struggling to find his targets downfield and on a 19-yard swing pass that set up a Dan Bailey field goal.
Opposing teams have appeared to be focusing on taking away screen passes in recent weeks. Against the Packers in Week 16, Cousins only completed three passes for four yards behind the line of scrimmage. The previous week against the Chargers he threw an interception to Melvin Ingram on a screen.
During the rest of the regular season, throws behind the line were extremely effective. Cousins picked up 8.1 yards per attempt, nearly doubling his 2018 average. If screens aren’t available against the 49ers, using checkdowns and swing passes to Cook and Mattison — especially early to get Cousins in a groove — could be key.
Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill faced the toughest task of his career: Match up with Cam Jordan for four quarters on the road in a playoff game.
He passed the test, giving up just one hurry on 35 pass blocking snaps.
“I think he’s done a great job this year,” Zimmer said. “He’s got a chance to be a really, really good player if he continues to improve, continues to get stronger and more physical, because he’s smart and he’s tough.”
O’Neill and veteran guard Josh Kline scored the highest PFF grades in run blocking for Sunday’s contest. When running to the right side, Cook picked up 72 yards on 12 runs (6.0 yards per rush). That includes his 11-yard gain that put the Vikings in Saints territory on their overtime drive.
Dalvin Cook shows the Vikings it’s possible to finish a touchdown drive without Taysom Hill pic.twitter.com/jTMJMyy2aP
— Wes Blankenship (@Wes_nship) January 5, 2020
Certainly it isn’t as simple as running to the right all the time but the strength on that side should point the offense in that direction when they need to pick up a chunk of yards on the ground. In the passing game, O’Neill’s emergence should allow them to give help to Riley Reiff when he faces off with Nick Bosa in San Francisco.
The Vikings defense did an outstanding job slowing down Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook, who are two of Drew Brees’s favorite passing weapons. Kamara caught 81 passes this season and Cook averaged 16.4 yards per catch on 43 regular season receptions. They combined for 13 grabs and just 88 yards on Sunday.
The Saints attacked Anthony Barr in the passing game against Kamara. While all five passes to the star running back against Barr were completed, the longest went for just nine yards. Eric Kendricks made a key play on a pop pass to Kamara, forcing a six-yard loss and both safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith made key tackles against Kamara, giving him pickups of just four and three yards.
Cook made his presence felt late in the game with two 14-yard catches on the same drive but was largely ineffective for the rest of the game. He caught three passes going against Smith and averaged less than nine yards per reception on those grabs.
San Francisco has one of the NFL’s superstar tight ends George Kittle and a group of running backs who can be dangerous in the short passing game. Generally speaking in the Zimmer era the Vikings have been outstanding against backs and tight ends. That will certainly be tested on Saturday.
Throughout the year one of the most important elements of the Vikings’ offensive and defensive success was using their depth players. On the offensive side Kevin Stefanski did not shy away from his younger players. Rookie tight end Irv Smith played 43 snaps, rookie receiver Bisi Johnson saw 27 plays and rookie running back Alexander Mattison was in for 13 plays.
Each of them were contributors during Thielen’s absence during the regular season and if the Vikings are going to move on in the postseason, one or all of them will likely need to make key plays.
Stefanski also stuck with his fullback CJ Ham, who scored the third highest PFF grade of any Viking for the game. He was on the field for 22 plays against the Saints and was a factor in run blocking.
On the defensive side, Zimmer moved Hunter and Griffen inside at times to attack the Saints’ weaknesses at guard. That wouldn’t have been possible without a solid rotation of defensive linemen. Ifeadi Odenigbo was in for 21 plays, Stephen Weatherly 19, Jaleel Johnson eight and Jayln Holmes for six snaps (he recovered a Brees fourth quarter fumble).
Zimmer has wanted this type of rotation since losing to the Eagles in the NFC Championship game because he believed players could stay fresh. Linval Joseph was only in for 37 plays but created two pressures and was important in eliminating the Saints’ run game.
San Francisco uses many of the same concepts to keep pass rushers at bay (pun intended) so Zimmer’s creativity in using his personnel will be tested on Saturday.