Of course, he has been a long-time assistant, but orchestrating the entire offense is totally different. Every week, Stefanski has been improving and looking more comfortable. During Sunday’s 38-20 win over the Eagles, Stefanski’s playcalling fully maximized the strengths of each player. He called 13 play-action passes, which allowed quarterback Kirk Cousins to get on the move off boots. The coaches set up quick passing early and took more deep shots up the field. The blend of running game concepts, play-action and quick passing allowed the Vikings’ offense to get into a rhythm.
Minnesota has been creating more explosive plays, which was an emphasis under new offensive leadership. The Vikings currently rank first in overall explosive plays (15%), including both running (16%) and passing plays (13%), according to Sharp Football Stats. This has been a product of putting players in positions to be successful. In the Philadelphia game, Stefanski mixed in motion, reverses, screens and deep play-action shots to keep the defense guessing.
In this game, quarterback Kirk Cousins was confident and thriving on the move. On 3rd-and-12, he threw wide receiver Adam Thielen open. While seeing two deep safeties, Thielen gets to the top of his route and flashes his hand. Cousins anticipates he’s going to break off the route and snaps the pass in-between the safety and cornerback. He made two similar throws throughout the day and wasn't afraid to give his receivers opportunities.
Cousins was taking deep shots off play-action and completed ten of his 13 play-action passes. Three of those plays resulted in explosive touchdowns. After struggling to get wide receiver Stefon Diggs involved early in the year, Cousins connected with him all day. On Diggs’ first touchdown reception, it appeared the Vikings took advantage of busted quarters coverage (four defensive backs each playing a deep zone in the backend). Safety Rodney McLeod bit on Adam Thielen’s crosser and cornerback Rasul Douglas was trailing behind Stefon Diggs. Diggs literally ran in a straight line and burned the backend of the Eagles’ defense.
On the second touchdown, the Eagles had eight players in the box and everyone bit hard on the play-action look. With a single-high safety over the top and linebackers giving so much attention to the run, Diggs had a man coverage matchup on the outside. He ran a deep go route and torched Rasul Douglas over the top again.
Diggs was not only valuable in the vertical passing game, but Stefanski dialed up plays to take advantage of his yards after the catch ability. This is one of the most underrated aspects of Diggs’ game. Early on, the Vikings used a reverse and quick-hitting pass in space to allow Diggs an opportunity to create after the catch. These are the kind of plays the Vikings can continue to run in early down situations to pick up positive yardage.
On his third touchdown, Diggs was in the red zone and beautifully sold the outside release. He got cornerback Craig James on skates, received separation and made a tremendous high-point catch in the back of the end zone.
Diggs and Adam Thielen are such deadly weapons in the red zone because of their route-running skills. Early in the game, Thielen ran a smooth double move. He kept his head still and shoulders square at the top of his route. He sold the out, but instead swiveled and drove off his outside foot for a beautifully executed fade. Cousins placed the pass perfectly and flashed his accuracy in the red zone.
The Vikings’ quarterback was accurate, confident and comfortable in the pocket throughout the day. When evaluating this game, it was arguably Cousins’ best performance in Minnesota. Kevin Stefanski and the offensive staff maximized his strengths by getting the ball out quick and using play-action. In the Vikings’ two losses, they tried too many deep drops and were unable to use play-fakes to move him out of the pocket. Since the Chicago game, Stefanski has been continually using play-action to help Cousins. The offensive line also protected Cousins well and gave him time to take shots downfield. At the end of the day, improved offensive line play and boot designs have helped the Vikings’ quarterback make more plays.
Minnesota added more flavor to the offense by using motion, reverses and tight end screens. It also slowed the Eagles’ pass rush and forced them to maintain discipline by retracing. The Vikings picked up positive yardage by calling those plays at the right moment. I would like to see Stefanski continue involving tight end Irv Smith Jr. Late in the game, Smith Jr. motioned and the linebacker sat to defend the run. It allowed Smith to get separation off a wheel route for 29 yards. This is an example where play-action caused the entire second-level of the defense to bite and freeze. Smith’s role could continue to increase if teams decide to start doubling Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs more frequently. Either way, the Vikings need to find opportunities to get Smith involved in the passing game. He can be a major weapon in this offense.
I touched on it briefly, but the offensive line has been continuing to improve every week. Rick Dennison’s schemes have been critical to helping the running game tick. He’s been running plenty of outside zone and is getting the guards, tackles and centers on the move. When you have a dynamic running back and athletic offensive linemen, this type of scheme is executed at a high level. On one play, the Vikings pulled Brian O’Neill into space and got him moving. He helped spark the play, displaying his athleticism and ability to help in the ground game. Garrett Bradbury also scraped into the second level to apply a cut block.
Bradbury has been getting better every week and played his best game against the Eagles. He was very impactful by reaching and getting to the second level. More importantly, Bradbury executed in pass protection and isn’t getting driven back nearly as much. I pulled out one specific clip where Bradbury helped spark a run. During Alexander Mattison’s 35-yard rush, Bradbury got to the linebacker and Dakota Dozier opened the crease with a key block. The inside running play was also masked nicely by Kirk Cousins’ fake. When Mattison hit the hole, he bumped the run outside behind a block in the third-level by Kyle Rudolph. Throughout the day, Minnesota’s offensive line and running backs executed. Alexander Mattison showed he can be a solid complementary option to Dalvin Cook. He had several tough runs where he displayed his balance, vision and ability to fight through tackles.
Overall, Kevin Stefanski’s playcalling has helped the Vikings’ offense click. This was the most balance they have displayed this season. Minnesota is continuing to add creative passing/running wrinkles to the scheme. The innovation by Rick Dennison and Gary Kubiak has been shining through, especially when you see the offense continue to maximize its potential up front. We also saw what can happen if Kirk Cousins continues to play confidently.
Now, the Vikings have to find a way to continue the evolution of their offensive system.