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The Vikings kicked off the preseason with a 34-25 win over New Orleans. Daniel House reviewed the film and provided a few takeaways.
by: Daniel House
(videos provided by NFL Gamepass)
Friday night was the first chance to see the Vikings’ new offensive system under the direction of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. In the first preseason game of the year, Minnesota notched 460 total yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry.
The starters played just eight snaps, but got into a rhythm through play-action and a deep shot up the field. Quarterback Kirk Cousins finished the night 4-for-4 with 65 yards and a touchdown. He also stepped up in the pocket and used his legs to extend a play. Fullback C.J. Ham was a step late picking up a blitzing Demario Davis. Cousins felt the pressure and escaped for a 10-yard gain. This is the type of play Cousins will need to occasionally make in order to extend plays and keep drives moving. His pocket presence and awareness are traits he must improve this year.
The Vikings used play-action and moved Kirk Cousins out of the pocket through design. This is the type of thing fans can expect to see frequently in 2019. Minnesota ran the ball just three times for six yards on the first drive, but Cousins used play-action to find Kyle Rudolph and pushed a deep ball to Adam Thielen. On the play to Rudolph, Cousins sold the play-fake and Rudolph initially moved laterally with the linemen. He sold the running play, but eventually settled into the soft coverage spot on the backside.
On the next play, Cousins hit Adam Thielen deep off a straight five-step drop. New Orleans brought a safety blitz and Thielen won his fade route on the outside. He beautifully adjusted to the throw and made a difficult catch as he fell to the ground.
Thielen was ruled short of the end zone, so the Vikings had an opportunity to try a goal-line play.
They packed everyone in tight via 22 personnel (two tight ends, a fullback, running back and one wide receiver), including putting wide receiver Laquon Treadwell’s hand in the dirt. Cousins sold the outside run on the weakside of the formation. All of the defenders bit on the run, except for linebacker Alex Anzalone. However, even he was a few steps late as Alexander Mattison popped into the flat. This year, we can expect the Vikings to use a heavy dose of play-action and misdirection to stretch defenses horizontally. If they can make several different packages look similar, but mix the run and pass, they will become less predictable offensively.
During the first drive, the Vikings’ starters lined up in the following personnel groupings:
11 personnel: 2
12 personnel: 3
21 personnel: 3
22 personnel: 1
Overall, throughout the night, Minnesota frequently varied its personnel groupings. Of course, this probably won’t give us a glimpse into future play-calling tendencies, but it’s worth noting the variation they showed. In a recent piece, I discussed the importance of mixing packages and using play-action to stress defenses. When analyzing offenses Gary Kubiak has influenced in the past, he has always emphasized using fullbacks. It’s just one game, but the Vikings ran 21 personnel on 14 of their 61 total snaps (23%). They also used 22 personnel seven times (11%) and utilized 12 personnel (two tight ends) on 18 occasions (30%). Several of the team’s biggest runs, including Ameer Abdullah’s 42-yard sprint, came out of the 11 personnel package.
The delayed draw allowed Abdullah to find a crease behind strong blocks from Danny Isidora, Dakota Dozier and Brandon Zylstra. The Saints brought pressure, the linebacker over-ran the play and Abdullah showed off his field vision.
Later in the game, Abdullah fumbled the ball, which has been a major issue in the past. He has fumbled six times in his career and it’s one of the main reasons why he couldn’t latch onto a permanent role in Detroit. Abdullah’s fumble on Friday night was the result of unnecessarily attempting to transition the ball. Those are the type of mistakes he can’t make, especially after a strong showing by running back Mike Boone.
Boone had a strong pass protection rep in the red zone that helped fuel a two-yard receiving touchdown by fullback Khari Blasingame. The Vikings again used a fullback near the goal-line and set up the score through play-action.
Blasingame had a really strong performance and played a key role in sparking Mike Boone’s 64-yard touchdown run. He beautifully set the edge, but what’s more impressive is the fact he fell down and sprinted the length of the field. Blasingame caught up with Boone and delivered an additional downfield block to complete the touchdown run.
After the night Blasingame had, it will be fascinating to see if he gets any snaps with the first-team.
It’s also worth highlighting the blocking by Minnesota’s third-team offensive line. Tyler Catalina (#79) drove the defender downhill and cleared a massive lane. Oli Udoh (#74) also mauled his man on the backside of the play. In this game, Udoh flashed both in pass protection and run blocking. Here's just one example of his pass protection sets:
He is physical, has quick feet, plays to the whistle and is strong in the running game. Udoh is still learning the technical aspects of the game, but after a year of coaching, it will be exciting to see the type of player he becomes.
Across all three units, the Vikings’ offensive line performed well. Minnesota’s running backs averaged 7.9 yards per carry and broke free for two explosive runs. Udoh and Catalina stood out in the third-team unit, while Brett Jones and Dakota Dozier had notable reps with the second-team. In one example, Jones walled off the nose tackle and Dozier scraped to the second level to find a linebacker. During 1-on-1 drills in camp, Jones has been a standout performer and continues to improve his chances of making the roster.
One of my favorite plays of the night was a tight end screen to Tyler Conklin. Quarterback Sean Mannion sold the play-fake and defenders move toward the inside run. Conklin slipped to the edge and Brett Jones/Rashod Hill led the charge in space.
I expect to see these type of screens used throughout the year, especially considering the type of skill sets the team has at tight end. The Vikings can also run mesh concepts to get their pass catchers in space over the middle. Not to mention, they can use play-action to keep the defense guessing, too.
Out of all the wide receivers, Olabisi Johnson continues to be the one young player separating himself. He ran a stop-and-go route in the red zone and quarterback Sean Mannion found him for an 18-yard touchdown. He sold the inside route by using a head fake and keeping his shoulders vertical. He also adjusted and got inside position to slow up and bring in the pass. Earlier in the game, Johnson also ran a smooth deep comeback and had three yards of separation. Johnson, Laquon Treadwell and Brandon Zylstra earned reps before wide receiver Jordan Taylor, who didn’t enter the game until the fourth quarter. Based upon camp performance, this does not surprise me.
Overall, the offense made plays in the ground game and consistent contributors were spotted throughout all three of the offensive line units. The blend of different personnel packages allowed the Vikings to assess various looks and evaluate players at multiple positions. The big area that must be cleaned up – the penalties. The offense picked up several holding infractions and Laquon Treadwell had an unnecessary blindside block penalty. There were positive flashes, but both teams kept the gameplans very basic. They used this game to assess the potential capabilities of individual players and larger concepts against another team.
If you watched this game, you probably noticed all of the Vikings' defensive line depth. The coaches consistently rotated at the three-technique position to evaluate skill sets. Jalyn Holmes had an impressive night and caused several pressures, including a sack off a beautifully executed stunt. He nearly had a second sack, but it was called back due to a holding penalty in the end zone.
Holmes has the quickness, length and athleticism to play at the three-technique spot. This offseason, he continued to add weight, but still has moments where he struggles against the run. I found a couple plays where he was overpowered at the point of attack.
After watching camp, where you really notice the improvement with Holmes is from a technique standpoint. He is understanding how to set up his pass rushing moves through leverage. In the first example above, he attacks the outside shoulder of the guard, notices he has a leverage advantage, rips through and causes a pressure. Those are the little details Holmes will continue to develop, but there’s no doubt he can help on a rotational basis this year.
Mike Zimmer indicated he’d like to see the interior of his defense hold up better against the run. The Saints averaged 4.9 yards per carry and there were a few reps where interior defenders were unable to penetrate or get off blocks. This has to happen in order for the linebackers to flow downhill and make plays.
The other player who made his mark at three-technique was Hercules Mata’afa. He was hyped up throughout the spring and showed some of the reasons why coaches are excited about him. Mata’afa is so quick and explosive off the snap and it allows him to get interior offensive linemen on their heels. In this game, he sacked Teddy Bridgewater by keeping his feet moving. He was quick off the snap and fought with his hands to shed. He angled inside and got a leverage advantage. It helped him power his way into Bridgewater for a sack.
Mata’afa sometimes struggles to free himself against the run, but his quickness and ability to use leverage make him really tough to block. In this defense, he feels like the perfect third-down situational pass rusher. He also never quits on the play. In this game, the Saints were setting up a screen pass and Mata’afa was tossed to the ground. He quickly re-gained his footing and sprinted to make the play in space. This is the type of effort that can make a big difference in games. Mata’afa may be used creatively in this defense and will continue to improve as he gets stronger against the run.
In addition to those two players, Ifeadi Odenigbo was a top performer. After looking like he suffered a significant injury, Odenigbo returned and got to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He turned the corner and got low to angle around the offensive tackle. Odenigbo nearly stripped Bridgewater, but the positive play was called back due to a penalty. The young defensive end was disruptive throughout the night and has been making his mark in training camp, too.
Throughout camp, I’ve continually mentioned linebacker Reshard Cliett. He performed well on Friday night and pulled off blocks in the running game. Cliett also adequately covered routes in the flat and over the middle. On a night where the Vikings struggled to consistently tackle, Cliett was sure-handed in space. He continues to play a big role on special teams has has upside defensively because of his athleticism, length and physicality.
With strong outings from Cliett, Cam Smith (outside of a coverage mishap) and Devante Downs, roster cuts could become challenging at linebacker.
After being at training camp for the past eleven days, I’ve felt like the Vikings need to add one more cornerback after roster cuts. Following Friday night’s game, I still have the same opinion. When he returns, cornerback Kris Boyd will provide depth, but it won’t hurt to continue monitoring the waiver wire at this position. At the bottom of the depth chart, cornerback Nate Meadors was one of the only standout performers. He made a great tackle in space, hauled in a pick-six and had tight coverage to force an incompletion.
As a collective defensive unit, the tackling has to improve and there was a high volume of holding penalties in the secondary. One can expect the coaches will be heavily emphasizing fundamentals and technique in this week’s practice sessions.