Thursday, December 13, 2018

What adjustments can Kevin Stefanski make to the Vikings' offense?


The Vikings are making a change at offensive coordinator, but what adjustments can Kevin Stefanski truly make with three games remaining? Daniel House presents a few ideas. 

Updated: December 13, 2018, 5:40 p.m.

By: Daniel House

The Vikings are searching for a spark offensively and head coach Mike Zimmer is hoping long-time assistant Kevin Stefanski is the man to get it done. Zimmer made the decision to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo earlier this week. Stefanski has been on the Vikings staff for 13 years and the team blocked him from interviewing for the Giants' offensive coordinator job this offseason. He will now bring his diverse coaching experience to Minnesota's coordinator role.

A hot offensive coordinator candidate this offseason, DeFilippo and Zimmer obviously didn’t see eye-to-eye regarding an offensive philosophy. DeFilippo was more of an expert with passing game concepts, while Zimmer clearly wanted to build the offense around a physical rushing attack. There are a variety of variables at play when it comes to the Vikings’ offensive issues. Kirk Cousins is struggling when initial reads break down and the short yardage running game is performing poorly. The play-calling has been predictable in many of these situations and opponents have clearly tried confusing the Vikings with a plethora of pre-snap coverage looks. This was specifically evident two weeks ago against the Patriots. The Vikings will need to start using tempo when they are placed in those situations. DeFilippo was seemingly unable to adjust after teams started scheming to take away his route concepts. With poor offensive line play also being a factor, it’s a difficult challenge for anyone. 

The sudden passing of Tony Sparano also rocked the team in a variety of areas. He was a veteran coach who provided a bridge between head coach Mike Zimmer and the offense. Sparano was very influential in the team running more zone blocking concepts prior to the 2017 season. He managed to balance his strong background in gap schemes with zone concepts.  His expertise helped the offense adjust and become more nuanced in many areas. Not only that, but his relationship was the players and community is missed. Since DeFilippo is more natural with the passing game, it seems like the Vikings are really missing Sparano’s vast knowledge of blocking principles. It maybe would have helped ease the transition for DeFilippo, who was calling plays for just the second time in his career. Minnesota went right into the season without much time to adjust both mentally and schematically. 

Of course, this is just one layer to many issues facing this Vikings team. The current personnel within the interior of Minnesota's offensive line is also playing a role in what the Vikings can do. Kirk Cousins has also performed poorly in recent weeks, which hasn't helped the play-calling, either. 

With three games remaining, it's hard for Kevin Stefanski to make too many wholesale changes. However, he can certainly inject some different wrinkles into the current scheme. In his introductory press conference as the interim offensive coordinator, he mentioned a Pat Shurmur line that stuck with him: “it’s about the players, not the plays.” This phrase highlights what the Vikings must get back to offensively -- placing their players in the most favorable positions.

First, it starts by emphasizing three key areas: motion, play-action and roll-outs.

We’ll start with the motion category. The Vikings used it extensively last season under Pat Shurmur to confuse defenses. It's not only a great way to create deception, but it can help identify the defensive coverage before the ball is snapped. Considering making pre-snap reads is one of Cousins' strengths, this could be a major asset. With two dynamic route runners like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, it's all about finding ways to bust double teams. If you watched last week’s game vs. the Seahawks, you noticed how static the offensive sets were. The receivers were tightly packed into bunch or stack sets with narrow splits. Minnesota could benefit from more intermediate rubs, underneath mesh looks, and vertical switch concepts to cause pass off situations in the secondary. Diggs and Thielen are facing double teams and the Vikings have to find a way to alleviate some of this pressure. They have tight end Kyle Rudolph who can stretch the seam. Two weeks ago, covering tight ends was a clear weakness featured in the New England defense and Rudolph was targeted just three times. The offense simply hasn't used Rudolph correctly or adequately this year. 

By trying to create deception, you can test the eyes of players in the second level and even slow them down. Right now, teams can get downhill on the Vikings’ defense. Motion will help prevent teams from being as aggressive because they must focus on alignments. A little motion might help the Vikings control the tempo and route concepts a little. They can even move Dalvin Cook to the slot or outside in pre-snap to set up routes, as well. For example, in the clip below, motioning Jerick McKinnon outside got Adam Thielen a mismatch against a linebacker.

These are the type of quick hitting passing plays the Vikings need to emphasize. With the offensive line being so leaky and woefully inconsistent, getting the ball out quick is important. By creating mismatches through motion and diverse personnel groupings, this can be executed. They can also help buy time by using play-action and moving Cousins out of the pocket by design. There were about two instances where this occurred against Seattle and each of them were successful. Cousins still gets the ball out late in this clip, but the roll-out idea is the whole point. It helps compensate for a struggling interior offensive line.

One of the things Pat Shurmur did so well was creating mismatches with all of his playmakers. This was something John DeFilippo didn’t execute, especially considering Kyle Rudolph has scratched and clawed to earn 48 receptions through 13 weeks. Stretching the seam and using Rudolph to open things up with rubs and mesh concepts might help the intermediate passing game groove. Vikings fans expected to see more RPO concepts this year and Minnesota could pair additional inside zone runs with bubble screens or quick, intermediate passing plays. Kirk Cousins has shown an ability to manipulate defenses well in pre-snap situations, so more zone read action would give him some flexibility at the line of scrimmage. In general, the Vikings need to give Cousins more freedom to make changes and see what happens. With Stefanski spending so much time with Cousins in the meeting room, the working relationship should be very strong. 

In addition, getting Dalvin Cook in space and downhill should also be a priority. Last year, the Vikings schemed beautifully to use the skill sets of both Cook and the offensive line. A few of these clips illustrate the blend of rushing concepts. More zone read looks, blended with outside zone can help the Vikings develop a more threatening rushing attack. With the playing profiles of these offensive linemen, the coaches should try getting them in space more. 

The addition of David Morgan could help the running game, too. He has practiced the past two days on a limited basis after suffering a knee injury in November. Morgan is one of the most underrated players the Vikings have on their roster. I wrote a lengthy article last season about his value as a run blocker. Minnesota can run out of 12 personnel with Morgan and try getting Dalvin Cook in space. Morgan's blocking is a huge part of everything they do when running zone blocking. It's like having an additional offensive lineman on the field for most sets.

If Morgan isn’t quite ready to play, fullback C.J. Ham can be used in a similar capacity out of the backfield. In short yardage situations, the Vikings can run play-action and get Rudolph or Ham in the flat for a nice gain, too. Last season, Pat Shumur even ran a pistol look with C.J. Ham and layered it with a screen. I don't think people really truly understood the job Pat Shurmur did last season.

This was the type of creativity Shurmur provided with his play-calling, specifically in short yardage and red zone situations. He mixed his formations and personnel groupings to keep teams guessing. This is something Stefanski can apply to keep defenses on their heels. 

Outside of creativity, play-action is something the Vikings must start emphasizing. Kirk Cousins has ranked in the top-three of play-action passing during each of the past three seasons, according to Football Outsiders. Minnesota hasn’t used this enough and it’s allowed teams to just play coverage and take things away. Cousins does an effective job of selling play-fakes and he has two dynamic receivers to take chances with downfield. He showed the ability to move linebackers from their spots during his time in Washington.

Play-action is another aspect that can be added to the motion concepts discussed earlier. The other area where this type of play design can be effective is in the red zone and short yardage situations. Pat Shurmur used motion, a variety of different personnel sets and creative plays. I picked out several examples from Shurmur’s red zone play-calling last year where he simply created mismatches on his own. There are so many samples to pull from last season where Shurmur perfectly played to the strength of a specific player's skill-set. The concepts below all interweave motion, mismatches and creative intermediate routes (rubs, delayed action, etc.) to get the football out quickly and efficiently. Many of these play designs can be used to help the Vikings in short yardage situations, too. 

Overall, many of the changes the Vikings need to make offensively start by creating mismatches and mixing personnel sets. When Pat Shurmur says “it’s about the players, not the plays,” he’s 100 percent correct. Even with poor personnel on the offensive line, there are still plenty of skill players to work with. Coaching is all about finding ways to maximize potential.

Now, Kevin Stefanski has the chance to show he can do it. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice work Daniel - we all hope to see a bit more creativity on Sunday. Some of the work the Bears have done to utilize Cohen should work with Cook - particularly intermediate routes a linebacker.