Monday, December 17, 2018

Film Review: Subtle adjustments helped the Vikings' running game click

New offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski helped the Vikings put up 41 points in his debut. Many fans are wondering what changed with Stefanski at the helm. Daniel House provided a few answers. 

Updated: December 17, 2018, 4:20 p.m.

By: Daniel House

Early last week, the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and turned the keys over to long-time assistant Kevin Stefanski. With just a few weeks remaining, Minnesota can’t make many large changes to the scheme. However, many of adjustments they needed to make were small in nature. More outside zone running, an emphasis on play-action and motion were a few areas they could improve. It felt like the team took a partial blueprint from Pat Shurmur and applied it to Sunday’s 41-17 win over Miami. Many Twitter questions are pouring in regarding the biggest changes Stefanski made during a handful of days at the helm. This post will address all of them in detail.

First, Stefanski managed to feed Dalvin Cook with 20 all-purpose touches. The main difference in terms of rushing success started with the blocking schemes. Minnesota ran more outside zone, which allowed Cook to get in space. When he does this, he shows off his elusiveness, agility and yards after contact ability. In the first clip below, left tackle Riley Reiff seals the edge and Rudolph lays down a block to give Cook a nice lane. He eventually bumps the run outside, using his open field explosiveness to break free. The play was also well-blocked on the right side as Pat Elflein and Mike Remmers executed a beautiful combo block. On the first drive of the game, Minnesota used outside zone and a screen pass to finally get the ball in Cook's hands. 

Outside of the emphasis on outside zone running, the Vikings used the correct personnel packages to create running creases. Miami poorly played the edge and tight end David Morgan mauled several defensive ends/linebackers to open big rushing lanes. At the 29-second mark of the above video, you’ll see the edge block by Morgan, along with fullback C.J. Ham squaring up in the hole. Cook bounces the run outside and exploits the cornerback, who lost outside contain. When Dalvin Cook manages to get 1-on-1 in space, he can take care of everything else. The emphasis upon running him to the edge helped create more of those favorable situations on the ground. Minnesota’s offensive line should be credited for improving their overall execution, too.

At the 47-second mark of the above video, you’ll notice left guard Tom Compton pulling into space and opening a rushing lane for Dalvin Cook. By getting offensive linemen in space, it helps create natural push by getting them downhill. It also allows Cook to bounce runs outside and use his elusiveness to break through tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced nine missed tackles on 20 total touches. The key is to get him the football and let him work. By using better blocking schemes, the Vikings managed to take advantage of their personnel better.

With the return of David Morgan and the increased usage of C.J. Ham, the Vikings witnessed success out of 21 personnel packages. In the future, they can also run some unbalanced sets with Rashod Hill entering as an extra blocker. He has proven he can be effective in this capacity if the team wants to deploy 12 or 13 personnel packages. In those instances, Hill will report as eligible and provide more power on the edge. During this game, they did it twice on the right side. Minnesota often used Aviante Collins in this capacity last season. These type of packages and personnel shifts were something Pat Shurmur deployed to take advantage of his players’ strengths.

The Vikings ran the ball with increased success, but they managed to get under center and use play-action, too. When using a play-fake, Cousins completed all six of his attempts for 103 yards and a touchdown. This conveniently occurred with the quarterback under center for all of those snaps. During each of the past three seasons, Cousins finished in the top-three of the league for play-action passing. Moving him under center not only helps create more downhill movement by the linebackers, but gives Cousins a chance to sell the fake. The Vikings used motion to set up some of these play-action looks as well. It was a stark contrast to the philosophy of former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. He emphasized using the shotgun and didn’t get his players moving laterally in space. Under DeFilippo, the Vikings ran play-action on just 18.6 percent of dropbacks. In Stefanski’s first game calling plays, the number jumped to 32 percent, according to Football Outsiders data. Moving forward, this is a trend that must continue.

When Cousins was under center, he performed better and the running game flourished. At one point, Stefanski went back to the shotgun for a sequence of plays and the offense locked up. The Vikings had a pick-six and two three-and-outs with Cousins going 3-for-7 for 23 yards out of the shotgun. They also had several penalties that shifted Stefanski out of his rhythm as a play-caller. Cousins’ pick-six also seemed to knock him off his game a little, too. For a stretch of this game, he wasn’t looking confident in the pocket and had trouble feeling pressure. He eventually settled in to deliver a strike to Aldrick Robinson for a much-needed 40-yard touchdown.

Many of those stalling drives were the result of penalties, too. A hands to the face penalty and holding call knocked the offense out of rhythm. The entire unit also had a few plays where they didn’t have blocking numbers and Miami managed to make plays. Once the Vikings got back into a groove, moved under center and used play-action, things started to improve. It was also a learning moment for Stefanski, who had to experience the art of play-calling flow and in-game adjustments. For the most part, the new coordinator got back on track quickly.

Cousins finished the afternoon 8-for-9 under center, tossing for 125 yards and a touchdown. When in the shotgun, he was 6-for-13 for 90 yards and an interception. If you exclude the 40-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson, he was just 5-for-12 for 50 yards and an interception. Not only that, but the running game had more success when the Vikings started under center and occasionally used 21 personnel to pound the ball. As discussed above, they also ran more outside zone and got Dalvin Cook out to the boundary.

When running under center, Vikings ball carriers rushed for 188 yards on 32 carries (5.8 yards per carry). The team only ran out of the shotgun four times for 28 yards. More importantly, it’s clear Stefanski valued pushing the ball left. Many of the two tight end sets were aligned in this direction or the Vikings ran on the backside of a formation. Minnesota carried the ball 19 times for 152 yards and three touchdowns when rushing left (8 yards per carry). They had just 11 carries for 45 yards (4 yards per carry) when running right. Those figures are accounting for all runs, including those out of the shotgun. I also excluded the rushes, scrambles or sacks by Cousins in these figures. The usage of personnel (Morgan and Ham), combined with the performances of Riley Reiff and Tom Compton helped the Vikings achieve success on the ground. The emphasis upon outside zone running, getting linemen in space and mixing personnel, placed Dalvin Cook in favorable situations. Stefanski also adequately blended in Latavius Murray to change the rushing style and pace a little. 

Outside of these personnel adjustments, Stefanski did a nice job of setting up the offense with a rhythm. The Vikings came out and scored three touchdowns in the first quarter off a strong play script. Minnesota is the type of team that needs to get off to a quick start. With three consecutive touchdown drives, the Vikings scored the most first quarter points the franchise has accumulated since 2011. Stefanski used tempo to prevent the defense from making too many pre-snap adjustments. The subtle changes in rhythm helped keep the Miami defense on its heels throughout the afternoon. In past games, the Vikings have been snapping the ball late in the play clock, which has allowed defenses to adjust personnel or set up coverage disguises. Minnesota varied the overall snap times and it prevented Miami from getting set. Three weeks ago, the Patriots defense was aligning and getting creative to confuse the Vikings’ offense. Tempo helps prevent the opponent from playing chess too much.

The offense displayed many of the similar features emphasized by Pat Shurmur last season. Play-action, different personnel groups, motion/tempo and physical running were all featured. With just a few days to prepare, the Vikings’ players executed at a high level and the offense managed to make enough small adjustments to score 41 points. When Stefanski has more time to prepare and implement additional concepts, it will be fascinating to see how the offense expands.

If Minnesota can find an offensive identity, the defense is playing at a high level in the front-seven and secondary. There are plenty of areas to build upon, especially considering Stefanski showed he can maximize the potential of his players. The new coordinator obviously took Pat Shurmur's line to heart: "it's about the players, not the plays."


  1. Fabulous analysis, thank you. I we can get into the dance it could get interesting.

  2. It felt like the first couple drives were the famous 15ish scripted plays that teams start out with, and then Stef fell into calling Flippo's favorite calls, which for all the grief Miami's defense took for the day, still didn't work against them. No doubt Miami made more than a few unforced errors and made changes, but Flippo's offense still wasn't good enough to do anything against a bad defense. Hopefully with another week Stefanski will have more plays that are stolen from Shurmur's playsheet that he's ready to call and the offense has had more time to practice and perfect. They better - Lions run defense is no joke since trading for Snacks. Might not have quite the same balance this week, if also not to Flippo's level of in-balance.

    1. We ran just fine on the Lions even with Flips crap calling. Snacks is over rated. Not worried.