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The Vikings' first-team offense struggled during Saturday's preseason game against Arizona. Daniel House diagnoses some of the problems and looks at how the team can build upon rushing success.
by: Daniel House
(videos provided by NFL Gamepass)
After two strong showings in the preseason, the Vikings’ first-team offense struggled during Saturday’s 20-9 win over Arizona. The performance was a product of mistakes by a variety of different players and position groups. There were dropped passes, errant throws, incorrect routes and a few miscommunications. Quarterback Kirk Cousins finished the afternoon 3-for-13 with 35 yards. He missed a couple open wide receivers, but multiple drops and incorrect routes slowed the offense, too. Early in the game, wide receiver Stefon Diggs was wide-open over the top, but Cousins overthrew him. He had a clean pocket to step into and simply overshot Diggs.
The entire offense looked out of sync and couldn’t get into a rhythm. There were numerous issues with the execution of screen passes. After the game, head coach Mike Zimmer noted one of the poorly executed passes was the result of the running back going to the outside shoulder of the defensive end. Instead, it was supposed to be set inside to prevent a defensive end from getting into the passing lane. The clip below shows C.J. Ham running to the outside, which impacted the timing of the screen pass.
Zimmer said after Saturday's game that other issues related to screen passes were due to poor coverage matchups. There were so many situations where it looked like there were offensive miscommunications. Wide receiver Chad Beebe notably dropped a pass and appeared to run an incorrect route. Saturday’s game featured a high volume of mistakes and no single person contributed to the issues. There was also some pressure in the pocket. One of Arizona’s two sacks occurred when Kyle Rudolph was beaten off the edge. Anthony Walters easily ripped across Rudolph and got into the backfield. Cousins shook the initial tackle, but was pushed into the pocket for a sack.
The second was the result of a stunt by Cardinals defensive linemen Chandler Jones and Michael Dogbe. Right tackle Rashod Hill is blocking the blitzer and running back Alexander Mattison was chipping on the other side. Right guard Josh Kline is stuck with two pass rushers and Dogbe wins with the long-arm. Cousins had no opportunity to get rid of the ball and took a sack.
One of the areas that has been pretty consistent throughout the preseason: the Vikings’ run blocking. The highlight of the day was an 85-yard rushing touchdown by Dalvin Cook. The explosiveness and vision by Cook are two natural traits that make him so special. If he can stay healthy, it changes the entire Minnesota offense. In the run below, he cuts back and takes advantage of his linemen sealing and getting to the second level. Garrett Bradbury did a great job of scraping to the linebacker and Josh Kline/Rashod Hill helped seal the cutback lane. He beats the defensive end trying to contain and continues to read the defense. Pay attention to how he directs his blockers, sees a crease in the open field and accelerates between two defenders. His ability to anticipate rushing creases and read blockers/defenders is impressive. When he hits the open field, he lets his elusiveness and explosive traits take over. I think this clip illustrates the potential of the Vikings rushing game, especially when you see the combination of Dalvin Cook’s strengths and the interior offensive line’s ability to move in space/scrape to the second level.
In the zone running play below, the interior offensive line and Rashod Hill did a great job of clearing a backside rushing lane. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. is ready to wham block the defensive end and clear the backside pursuit. However, the offensive line collectively does a solid job and Rudolph wins his rep against a linebacker. This was blocked really well and if Alexander Mattison wasn’t tripped up, it likely would have resulted in an even bigger play.
This type of rushing success has continued with the second-team unit. Brett Jones has put together a very consistent training camp and preseason slate. He had numerous positive reps, including a powerful block on a Mike Boone 7-yard touchdown run. Dakota Dozier and Brett Jones are combination blocking, but Jones brushes off and finds a linebacker. Tight end Cole Hikutini did a nice job of setting the edge and Boone muscled his way into the end zone behind Jones.
Boone has continued to run the ball well and had 41 yards on ten carries. He also had a fantastic tackle as a punt gunner on special teams. One of his best runs of the day involved picking up yards after contact. Everyone talks about his athletic ability, but Boone’s physicality and willingness to finish runs is a strength of his game. In the clip below, you’ll notice how Dru Samia reaches the three-technique and tosses him backward. This is an example of his strength and physicality because he hasn't truly mastered the technique/hand placement yet. In this play, he managed to reach the guard and open the hole. Samia released off the block and the defender tripped over Danny Isidora, which helped open a crease. The SAM linebacker also poorly executes his run fit and Storm Norton washes him out of the play. Mike Boone hit the open crease and fought through contact to pick up additional yardage. This preseason, the second-team unit has been doing an effective job of run blocking, which is a positive sign for the Vikings’ offensive line depth.
Overall, there are many things to clean up offensively, including a variety of mistakes and mental errors. These type of issues can’t occur in the regular season because execution is pivotal against the NFL’s best teams. However, after seeing flashes of success in the preseason, there should be optimism regarding the blocking scheme and offensive line personnel.
The Vikings' defense allowed multiple back shoulder fades during Saturday’s preseason game. On this go route, cornerback Xavier Rhodes was unable to get a firm press at the line of scrimmage, got caught leaning and Damiere Byrd had five yards of separation over the top. Rhodes struggled in Saturday’s game and particular struggled to cover in man-to-man situations.
The Vikings defense gave up a few explosive passing plays, but upon reviewing the film, my attention shifted to the impact of Shamar Stephen. I can already see the difference he was making in the running game. In the last clip below, you’ll notice Stephen’s interior push and use of a disruptive long-arm. The interior pressure by Stephen and Armon Watts freed up linebacker Anthony Barr and helped him picked up a run stop. The Vikings experimented by using Armon Watts at nose tackle, alongside Shamar Stephen. After watching Watts in the preseason, I don’t think you can keep him off the roster. He consistently impacts plays, and when he's in the game, the interior gets fantastic push against the run and pass.
The first two clips below show Watts and Stephen getting push and impacting plays. In this defense, Watts has the versatility to play both nose tackle and three-technique. He has been productive both as a run defender and pass rusher, too. At this point, if it comes down to keeping Watts or Jaleel Johnson, I may consider Armon. They probably will keep both, but based upon the early reps by Watts in this game, it’s clear they wanted to evaluate Watts next to Stephen. After seeing Watts' performance in camp and the preseason, I think the Vikings may have found a sixth-round sleeper. In addition to Stephen’s performance, defensive end Everson Griffen was making plays against the run and had two quarterback pressures. He did a nice job of fighting through blocks and containing plays on the edge. Griffen was certainly impactful and disruptive throughout Saturday’s game.
I also liked how the Vikings brought in Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly during third down pass rushing situations. Odenigbo was getting tremendous push and has the power to thrive in this type of role. Ifeadi continues to play at a very high level and is very disruptive. In the clip below, Odenigbo had contain on a Kyler Murray zone read, chased him down and made the play. Ifeadi plays so hard and is carving out a situational role on the Vikings’ defensive line.
If you read any of my training camp posts, you know I believe Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse are the two most improved players on the Vikings’ roster. Each of them are thinking less and just playing within the system. Alexander has improved his coverage techniques and Kearse has flashed his versatility. In this game, Alexander had two physical tackles in space, including against a wide receiver screen. During the Seattle preseason game, Kearse was fantastic in the box. This week, he was making plays in coverage and tallied a physical pass breakup in the backend. Mike Zimmer has to feel great about the progress these two players have made. It gives him more options defensively, especially considering Kearse’s versatility.
For other upon further review articles, follow the links below:
Vikings vs. Saints
Vikings Offense vs. Seattle
Vikings Defense vs. Seattle