Monday, July 1, 2019

How could varying personnel groupings shape the Vikings' new offense?

In order to develop a deceptive offense, it's important to vary personnel groupings and limit overall predicability. Daniel House took a look at past trends to see what they can tell us about the Vikings' new system. 

(stats courtesy of Sharp Football Stats)

One of the biggest question marks entering this season is how different the Vikings’ offense will look with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski at the helm. Minnesota enters 2019 with its fourth play-caller in the past five seasons. In search of stability and a nuanced scheme, Stefanski hired veteran head coach/offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to serve as an offensive advisor. With the past influences of a veteran position coach like Stefanski, Kubiak is the perfect complement as an experienced influence in the offensive room. In the past, Minnesota has thrived with veteran coaches serving as a bridge between the offensive coordinator and head coach Mike Zimmer.

Now, this season will be a chance to watch the offense evolve and grow. The question we're all asking is: what will the offensive vision look like? With a blend of new minds and a young play-caller, it will be fascinating to see the offensive concepts come together. Based upon past trends and hints this spring, we have an idea of what the offense may look like. It's clear it will have many different influences, but the goal is to have one cohesive vision. Before looking ahead, it's worth looking at last year's personnel frequencies. They can help us dive into a few past trends, including predicability and the masking of team deficiencies. 

The entire season (click to enlarge the graphic, courtesy of Sharp Football):

As you will notice above, the Vikings used 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) on 68 percent of their total snaps in 2018. Out of those sets, they passed the ball 74 percent of the time and the ground game accounted for 26 percent of the total offensive volume. When the Vikings had one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers on the field, it was highly likely a pass play would occur. 

When the Vikings were within this package, Kirk Cousins averaged 6.8 yards per attempt and completed 67.8 percent of his passes. Out of this grouping, he was sacked 31 times and tossed nine interceptions. His overall passing success jumped when switching to 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). Cousins completed 69 of his 84 pass attempts, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. He was sacked just five times. The volume of completions likely increased because his depth of target dropped from 7.4 yards per attempt (11 personnel) to 5.6 out of 12 personnel. Minnesota also used more play-action, had additional pass protection available and tried to find a way to increase rushing productivity. 

In situations where the Vikings switched to 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), the rushing frequency percentages more than doubled in comparison to 11 personnel. Of the 192 plays out of this formation, Minnesota ran the ball 54 percent of the time (103 carries). The trend continued with 21 personnel, as the Vikings ran the ball nearly 60 percent of the time out of the set. It illustrates how Minnesota needed additional blockers to get a push in the running game.  This led to more predicability, especially when the Vikings were in rushing downs. When the Vikings didn't show much variety or have success running the ball, they became predictable and defenses could tee-off against the pass. However, statistically speaking, this set helped provide Kirk Cousins with more time in the pocket, despite the fact he wasn't pushing the ball downfield nearly as much.

I also wanted to see how these statistics differed with Kevin Stefanski calling plays. During his three games as offensive coordinator, Stefanski mixed the variety of his personnel packages much more frequently. In his first game calling plays, he used play-action at a 32 percent clip, which increased from John DeFilippo's prior 18% frequency percentage, according to Football Outsiders. The mix of zone blocking, personnel variation and play-action helped the offense. Not only that, but Stefanski used specific play design to get Kirk Cousins out of the pocket off boots and waggles. Those were just a few of the tweaks Stefanski could make after being thrust into a play-calling role with just three games remaining.

Stefanski's past influences, including many West Coast concepts from Brad Childress and Pat Shurmur, give us a glimpse into how he may approach personnel usage and passing game concepts. One can expect he will emphasize getting the ball out quick, stretching the defense horizontally and moving Kirk Cousins out of the pocket by design. Those were all hints we noticed during his short stint as offensive coordinator last year. 

It's also worth analyzing Stefanski's personnel grouping breakdown to see how much variety he emphasized. In his three games calling plays, he used 12 personnel (two tight ends) frequently to help the running game and pass protection. The combination of this, and moving Kirk Cousins out of the pocket off boots and play-action, helped the offense formulate more of an identity. In 2019, with an improved offensive line and the addition of tight end Irv Smith Jr., we can expect to see plenty of 12 personnel in both facets of the game. This formation has been increaing in prominence as teams run more hybird 12 personnel sets with athletic tight ends playing in roles similar to third wide receivers Last year, Philadelphia used 12 personnel for 36 percent of their total snaps. Not only that, but three NFL teams ran the set more than 30 percent of the time. It's clear this is becoming an important package for teams and the Vikings now have the correct personnel to execute it.

Offensive coordinator Stefanski ran the ball 53 percent of the time out of 12 personnel and Kirk Cousins completed 16 of his 18 total passing attempts out of the set. He also averaged more than 9.4 yards per attempt out of two-tight end packages. This directly correlates with the increased emphasis upon running the ball out of 12 personnel and moving Cousins out of the pocket via bootlegs or play-action. The goal was to limit predictability and tailor the system to the strengths of certain players.  

Few past Vikings' offensive coordinators did a better job of creating deception and maximizing player potential than Pat Shurmur in 2017. His creativity allowed the Minnesota offense to reach its full potential. Shurmur frequently mixed his groupings and made many concepts look different on a week-to-week basis. 

Five of Minnesota’s total rushing touchdowns in 2017 came out of 23 personnel (2 RB, 3 TE, 0 WR). Pat Shurmur only used this package seven times, but it resulted in six rushes and five total rushing scores. Last year, the Vikings only used this formation twice. Shurmur often brought in Jeremiah Sirles or Aviante Collins as an extra offensive lineman to work in tandem with two other tight ends. They ran out of these sets, but got creative with the passing game by adding wrinkles out of the set. This was particularly evident in the red zone and helped keep the defense on its heels, while subtly creating overall offensive balance. I'm expecting this to be an influence Stefanski picks up from Shurmur.

When Kirk Cousins was at his best in Washington, coaches were using his skills out of play-action.
With the zone-blocking scheme and Kubiak's past lineage in the Shanahan/McVay systems, one can expect we are going to see a heavy increase in play-action. Past Kubiak-influenced offenses maximized the potential of quarterbacks like Matt Schaub and an aging Peyton Manning by using play-action frequently. 

Right now, what we do know is how much Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison's fingerprints will likely be all over the run-game concepts. This starts by mixing outside/inside zone and blending in power to add weekly wrinkles. Last year, the team lacked innovation in the ground game and it showed up down the stretch. Kubiak has already stressed the importance of mixing up the rushing concepts. When factoring in the scheme and addition of center Garrett Bradbury, things will look very different conceptually. It will likely lead to the right blend of concepts for Dalvin Cook to get in space.

By using more outside zone and stretch running plays, Cook will be placed in more favorable situations. In 21 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, offenses with a Kubiak influence have finished top-ten in rushing 13 times. Minnesota may also use more 21 personnel to help in this area. We noticed Kevin Stefanski used this package occasionally, but Kubiak has always emphasized using the fullback. In 2015, Baltimore fullback Kyle Juszczyk tallied more than 40 receptions and 300 receiving yards. I expect to see more stretch plays and slips to the fullback, so C.J. Ham could see additional work next season. It's clear head coach Mike Zimmer wants to run the ball more effectively. This starts by varying the running game concepts and personnel groupings. Those variables, along with improved talent in the trenches leaves many analysts curious about the future vision of this offensive system.

With the experience of Stefanski across systems and Kubiak/Dennision's past experience in Minnesota's new blocking scheme, the system will be structured. This not only could have a ripple effect on the entire offense, but it may place Kirk Cousins in an offensive system he is quite familiar with. We don't entirely know what the offense will look like, but we can effectively guess it will have more variety, creativity and a clear conceptual direction on the ground. Much of the goal should center around eliminating predicability and creating a structured system that maximizes the potential of not only Kirk Cousins, but all of the skill players Minnesota has at its disposal.

In the future, I will be analyzing how play-calling tendencies from last year's team impacted the running game and overall offensive predicability. Stay tuned!


  1. Good read. Be interesting to see if coach scheme & QB commit to reading deep to short on most playaction pass concepts. Line was bad last year but Cousins also settled for the quick outs and TE dumps too fast last year. One - you need big plays. Two - looking deep 1st gets short throw space for run after catch. three 5yd completion then fall down passes to Rudy are a win for defense not offense. Drops, sacks & penalties all favor defense getting a punt with a low risk never challenge the defense offensive approach. I blame Cousins, Off Line & coordinators for that problem. I am optimistic from hearing Cousins comments that he will attack more. I am optimisticFrom drafting of OLine in 1st round.I am Optimistic of Smiths ability to catch a 5 yd pass and go 20 yds after catch. I am optimistic on the Kubiak & Stefanski pairing. Good read Daniel.

  2. Good info as always Daniel. If the Vikings can implement the new system and the players pick it up quickly, it should be a very successful season. I appreciate your posts. Great job!