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Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is helping the Vikings' offense tick. Daniel House explains why schematic designs and play-action are transforming Minnesota's offensive attack.
by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
In the NFL, top coaches make schematic adjustments and find ways to completely maximize player potential. Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and his staff are helping create one of the league's most explosive offenses.
The Vikings' recent offensive rhythm has been fueled by play-action, quick passing and innovative running game concepts. After struggling in a Week 4 loss to the Bears, Minnesota made all of the necessary adjustments to fuel more explosive plays. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been on the move off play-action and boots. When this happens, his potential is maximized. As I noted in the Chicago breakdown, Cousins was asked to execute too many deep drops. The Bears’ defensive front took over, the pocket collapsed and Minnesota couldn’t establish any offensive rhythm. To set the stage, here is a look at Cousins' NFL Next-Gen Stats passing chart from the Vikings' 16-6 loss to Chicago. Long-developing routes, missed throws and muddy pockets, forced Cousins to toss a high volume of checkdowns. He was simply off the entire day and threw just five play-action passes.
Over the past three weeks, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has maximized the strengths of his offensive players. The play-action and boot game has helped Kirk Cousins come to life. He is making tough throws on the run and playing confidently. In Sunday's 42-30 win over the Lions, the trend continued. Stefanski dialed up play-action boots early and often. This helped Cousins' Next-Gen stats chart transform into the following:
The Vikings still rank No. 1 in explosive passing and rushing plays, according to Sharp Football Stats. New wrinkles deployed by the offensive staff have helped Minnesota's offense start to click. By using play-action frequently, Cousins has benefited tremendously. The Vikings have utilized play-action on 35 percent of their total dropbacks, which is the second-highest rate in the league, according to Sharp Football. In the win over Detroit, Cousins used play-action on 53 percent of his attempts, while completing 13-of-18 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns, per Sharp. He also posted 0.81 expected points added (EPA) per play off play-action, which speaks to his efficiency in this category.
We are starting to see the type of concepts we expected from a Kevin Stefanski/Gary Kubiak/Rick Dennison influenced system.
On the first play of the game, Cousins ran play-action and the linebackers/safeties bit hard on the run fits. He rolled out of the pocket and found wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was wide-open off an over route. It appears the Vikings are using a simple boot concept, which features a corner route, a route in the flat and a deep over. In this instance, Adam Thielen snaps an out to the flat, Irv Smith Jr. executes the corner route and Diggs runs an over. The goal is to clear out the middle half of the field. In a few ways, this play is similar to the "Yankee Concept." I'll show a pure example of that concept in another section.
Kirk Cousins is one of the best quarterbacks in the league when tasked with selling the play-fake. In this clip, you'll notice how hard the strong safety bites. When Minnesota runs the ball well, defenses bite hard against play-action in the second-level. This has helped the Vikings create more explosive passing plays.
This week, Minnesota's offensive staff heavily involved tight ends in the passing game. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. is a mismatch threat and Minnesota needs to continue finding ways to get him the football. In the play below, the Vikings are in 13 personnel (three tight ends). They cleared out the seam with Adam Thielen, so Smith had space to work over the middle against a cornerback. This is a play that comes out of the Shanahan family playbook. The Vikings have called the "Yankee Concept" a few times this season, including a few throwbacks off boots.
Smith ran another smooth route by keeping his shoulders square and head still all the way through the break-point. The young tight end has consistently shown he is capable of getting open by running technically sound routes. Not only that, but he is versatile as a run blocker and has exceeded early expectations in this category. This play is also another example of Minnesota effectively using play-action. Cousins had a clean pocket and easily connected with Smith for an explosive passing play.
Again, the Vikings used a similar boot action to set up the touchdown pass from Cousins to Adam Thielen. This time, Cousins again has a corner route (Diggs), an option in the flat (Ham) and tight end Kyle Rudolph dragging over the middle. The single-high safety bites on the corner route and Rudolph blocks downhill, but releases. Thielen had man coverage on the deep over route and Cousins made a perfect throw into a tight window. You can see how difficult this pass was when looking at the end zone All-22.
When analyzing the anatomy of this specific play, it appears this is a slightly modified version of Mike Shanahan's classic "swap boot" concept. Essentially, the difference between the "boot" and swap boot is the underneath option available away from the running action. In this instance, it's Rudolph.
I can't stress enough how brilliantly Kevin Stefanski has called the past three games. He is definitely improving with more game experience. This was a week where I could really see a fusion of Pat Shurmur's style, along with Mike/Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. In 2017, there were many instances where Shurmur would run "pick-style" plays with wide receivers or tight ends. Due to the amount of man coverage (Cover-1) the Lions play, Kevin Stefanski knew he could exploit the Lions with these hi-lo mesh concepts. In the instance below, it worked to perfection. Kyle Rudolph runs the crosser with Stefon Diggs and essentially sets a pick on the linebackers. With the weakside linebacker being forced to cover the wheel route (Cook), the small pick gives Diggs enough separation. That's the goal of this play design and helped the Vikings pick up a huge first-down on third-and-long. Stefanski called the right play and it was executed to perfection. Against this coverage, there is always going to be a natural hole underneath.
Stefanski also used the same mesh concept on another occasion. This time, the Vikings are aligned in 12 personnel with Irv Smith Jr. split out wide in a bunch formation. Again, the Lions were in Cover 1, so Minnesota had man coverage looks across the board. Smith Jr. crosses and runs shoulder-to-shoulder with Rudolph's man. It wasn't a huge pick, but it looked like it may have slowed the defender just a little bit. Kyle Rudolph beat his man over the middle and Kirk Cousins hit him in stride. Again, you're trying to exploit the man coverage and underneath hole of this defense.
Now, it's time to shift our attention to the red zone. This was one of the areas where Pat Shurmur was sensational as the Vikings' offensive coordinator. He effectively used motion, varied his personnel packages and deployed picks. In this game, we saw Kevin Stefanski dial up the same play twice in goal-line situations. During the first red zone example, Stefanski motioned wide receiver Bisi Johnson across the formation, ran play-action and utilized misdirection as Johnson popped into the opposite flat for a touchdown. The linebackers bit very hard on the play-fake and shifted to run fits. It's another example of how valuable it can be when your offense starts marrying the run and pass games together. All offseason, Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak talked about this idea. Now, over the past couple weeks, we're starting to see the benefits.
Later in the game, the Vikings ran the same type of play with fullback CJ. Ham and it led to another touchdown. On a week-to-week basis, Stefanski will likely keep developing even more creative wrinkles to help Minnesota leave the red zone with touchdowns.
It's also necessary to give credit to Kirk Cousins for the way he has responded after the Chicago game. The scheme continues to put him in favorable situations and it's increased his confidence. Cousins is third in completion percentage above expectation and ranks No. 1 in passer rating among NFL quarterbacks, according to NFL Next-Gen Stats. Stefanski has helped the offensive flow and it's benefiting Cousins. In the clips below, I pulled out several difficult throws made by No. 8. It's also worth noting Stefanski's willingness to take a deep shot, which helped put the game away. He ultimately got the man matchup he wanted wide receiver Stefon Diggs to receive. There was no help over the top and Kirk Cousins effortlessly made the throw. Over the past three weeks, the blend of quick passing, deep shots and play-action, has been tremendous. Stefanski is gaining more experience and calling plays at the right moment.
Kirk Cousins is playing with so much confidence right now. #Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski has helped by using play action/boots to get Cousins out of the pocket by design. He's emphasizing quick passing, but blends in enough deep shots. Look at the touchdown pass to Thielen. 👀 pic.twitter.com/UM2ZKUQlEX— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) October 23, 2019
Finally, it's time to give the Vikings' offensive line the respect they deserve. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has the most time to throw of any quarterback in the league (average of 3.05 seconds), according to NFL Next-Gen Stats. The play of Minnesota's offensive tackles has been a big key. Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill have been performing well in pass protection. The Vikings have the seventh-lowest adjusted sack rate in the NFL at 4.8 percent, per Football Outsiders.
O'Neill has been rock solid and continues to help in the ground game, especially when he's tasked with pulling to the second-level. The same can be said for Riley Reiff, too. Rick Dennison and Gary Kubiak frequently pull the guards and tackles to get them in space. The expansion of the passing concepts have continued to evolve with rushing schemes. Minnesota's offensive line is showing improvement every week. The outside zone and stretch plays are effective and fully maximize the team's personnel. They have also managed to blend in toss plays, which take advantage of the offensive line's athleticism and running back Dalvin Cook's elite acceleration/vision.
Overall, I thought this was the best collective performance of the entire Minnesota offensive line. When he's healthy, Josh Kline has been solid and Pat Elflein was far more consistent in this game. The tight ends, including Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., also deserve credit for the impact they are having in the blocking schemes, too. A combination of the scheme, offensive line play and Dalvin Cook's rare gifts, are helping Minnesota's ground game continue to evolve.
There are so many moments where I simply ask myself: how did Dalvin Cook do that? He has incredible strength, footwork, balance and acceleration. Cook is playing some of the best football in the NFL and has been a driving force behind the Vikings' success. The combination of outside zone, offensive line athleticism and Cook's incredible skills, are a match made in heaven. Even when Cook doesn't have the best blocking, he will fight through tackles and keep his feet moving. For example, in the clips shown below, look at how he turns a loss into a short rushing touchdown. These are the "how did he do that?" film clips:
In recent weeks, center Garrett Bradbury has been a big key to the Vikings' rushing success. He does a brilliant job of reaching defensive tackles and brushing to the second level. He's also dramatically improved his skills in pass protection. I pulled out some of the clips where I saw Bradbury execute very difficult blocks. Not many people would notice them in real-time, but they are very impactful.Every week, I ask myself: how did Dalvin Cook do that? I pulled out some of the film clips this week. The acceleration, balance, cutbacks, vision and yards after contact ability are 🔥. Cook is just so dynamic in every area of his game. #Vikings pic.twitter.com/gNCuxyHaIH— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) October 23, 2019
Overall, the Vikings are using play-action at a high rate, which helps quarterback Kirk Cousins thrive. In addition, Minnesota's running game concepts continue to take advantage of the personnel. We are starting to see offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski get into a groove as a play caller. He is taking influences from Mike and Kyle Shanahan, along with Pat Shurmur, to help the passing game tick. Rick Dennison and Gary Kubiak clearly have their Alex Gibbs inspired fingerprints all over the ground game. This offseason, the offensive staff talked about developing more explosive plays by marrying run and pass concepts together. Over the past three games, we have clearly witnessed their vision come to life.
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