Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Inside the Film Room: Analyzing the Vikings' Defensive Rotation and Kirk Cousins' Surge

Photos and Videos: NFL Gamepass

The Vikings used an effective defensive rotation during Sunday's 20-7 win over Detroit. Daniel House examined its impact and analyzed the recent surge by quarterback Kirk Cousins. 

by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

When the Vikings’ defense is executing and stopping the run, everything changes.

Last week, the majority of my breakdown focused on Minnesota needing to improve its overall defensive discipline. During Sunday’s 20-7 win over the Lions, run fits were much better at all levels. The Vikings' linebackers maintained discipline and the defensive line managed to take on double teams. After recovering from a knee injury, nose tackle Linval Joseph played one of his best games of the season. Joseph commanded double teams, which helped linebackers flow downhill and make plays. He shed blocks and helped redirect runs back to the edge. Not only that, but Joseph was particularly disruptive as a pass rusher. In the last clip below, Joseph splits two blockers and forces Detroit quarterback David Blough to escape the pocket. When this happened, defensive end Danielle Hunter quickly closed on Blough for a sack.

When the Vikings’ defense plays technically sound and limits early down rushing success, the pass rush starts to thrive. Hunter had three sacks and earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. The entire defensive line seemed to thrive within the rotation Mike Zimmer used. After playing nearly 70 snaps per game in Weeks 10 and 11, defensive end Everson Griffen has posted snap counts of 43 and 55 over the past two weeks. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly even saw a few snaps at defensive end to keep the entire unit fresh.

The rotation was also apparent in the interior of Minnesota’s defensive line. Linval Joseph played 37 snaps (53 week prior) and Jaleel Johnson was on the field for 25 plays. In the previous week, Shamar Stephen saw 52 snaps, but the coaches trimmed his workload to 24 plays against Detroit. In recent weeks, rookie Armon Watts has also started to receive a handful reps. He’s continuing to develop and may be a key contributor next season.

During Sunday’s game, I thought the defensive line looked fresh and less fatigued. Minnesota was able to use sub-packages frequently, which allowed the pass rush to get going. When the Vikings are in long-down situations, coaches can get all of the pass rushers on the field.

Due to the uptick in sub-package usage, Odenigbo played a season-high 42 snaps in Sunday’s game. He has been impactful within the interior and is getting pressure from the defensive end alignment, too. During 30 total snaps, Weatherly posted several pressures and had an impactful short-yardage run stop.

Overall, the Vikings run defense and alignments were much improved. I mentioned interior defensive line performance as one factor, but second-level run fits also played a role. After last week's game, I showed an example of an alignment issue. Chris Carson bends this run back inside and the second-level run fits appeared to be inadequate. To illustrate the improvement, it’s included below:

In this week's example, if you watch linebacker Eric Wilson, you’ll notice how he waits to see the read by Bo Scarborough before flowing playside. Scarborough decides to bounce the run outside instead of bending it back. This time, Wilson was prepared to fill the gap, if necessary. Shamar Stephen also got great interior push, which greatly impacted the outcome of this specific play.

Not only did the Vikings rotate on the defensive line, but they frequently mixed players in the secondary. Xavier Rhodes and Mike Hughes were injured in the game, but even before this occurred, Zimmer was shuffling players in and out. The Vikings distributed more snaps to Mike Hughes, Mackensie Alexander and Holton Hill. Zimmer indicated the cornerback rotation was something they decided to do last week, but it may not continue.

"There was only like one or two things that during the course of the ballgame that we did not do like they’re being coached to do,” Zimmer said Monday. "Hopefully that continues to improve, [the rotation] maybe take[s] a little wear and tear, where they have to be thinking all the time, off their plate. I don’t know, we’ll see what this week holds."

The main theme from Sunday’s game was the team's improved discipline and technique. If this continues, the Vikings’ defense could catch stride at the right time.

Cousins' recent surge a product of increased confidence, play designs 

I’ve received many questions about quarterback Kirk Cousins’ recent rise. Many of you are asking what the biggest difference has been. After the Bears game, I wrote about Cousins’ confidence, hesitancy and inability to get the ball out quick. Since that game, he’s taking more chances and trusting his receivers to make a play. There are more situations where he isn’t hesitating to fire a tight window pass. Cousins has the ability to make a variety of difficult throws, but he simply needed to have confidence in himself. The offensive system is also putting him in a position to thrive. Minnesota is using quick passing, bootlegs and play-action to help Cousins. During Sunday’s 20-7 win over Detroit, Cousins finished 14-of-16 with 127 yards and a touchdown off play-action, according to NFL Next-Gen Stats. The Vikings also called a run play or play-action on 79 percent of their offensive snaps. This is how you maximize the potential of a specific player — maximize his strengths.

Over the past nine games, everything has changed for Cousins. On Sunday, he made one of his best throws of the season. The Vikings used a play-action bootleg that rolled Cousins to his left. He turned his hips, set his feet and delivered a missile to wide receiver Stefon Diggs near the sideline. This is the type of confident throw Cousins has to keep firing to his wide receivers.
Right before halftime, the offensive coaches decided to take a shot downfield. With 37 seconds left in the first half, Minnesota dialed up a vertical pass on first-and-10 from the Detroit 47-yard-line. The tight ends ran outs, while running back Ameer Abdullah released over the middle. Olabisi Johnson and Stefon Diggs each used go routes on the perimeter to attack the single coverage matchups. Cousins perfectly placed the deep pass to Diggs for a 44-yard completion. Diggs fought through contact and managed to create just enough separation. He beautifully tracked the pass over his shoulder and made a difficult grab. Cousins’ downfield accuracy has been very impressive and continues to be a major asset in this system. I liked the agressive decision to throw vertically with only a few seconds left in the half. This specific play worked really well against the single-high look the Lions frequently deploy.

Entering the game, we all knew Detroit was a team that loved to run a high volume of man coverage. With this thought in mind, the Vikings dialed up plenty of play designs (like crossers) that slowed up the second-level.

I particularly enjoyed the play offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski used to fuel wide receiver Bisi Johnson’s nine-yard touchdown. On the left side of the formation, the Vikings dialed up a “drive and chase” design from the switch concept family. “Switch-style” plays are designed to create confusion and picks in the secondary/second-level. The wide receivers are essentially “switching” places from where they initially started.

Stefon Diggs is lined up inside of Johnson and angles to his left. Johnson is running a drag over the middle and Diggs eventually snaps his route back inside. This tight alignment doesn’t allow the defensive backs to come up and jam. Instead, cornerback Amani Oruwariye has to play off Johnson to combat the potential pick play. Oruwariye is too deep as Johnson runs a drag over the middle. The key aspect of this design is the fact a tight end drag is attached underneath. Pay close attention to how the single-high safety bites on Irv Smith Jr.'s route. Smith Jr.'s drag helped clear out three defenders to the backside of the play. With Johnson already moving over the middle, all the cornerback can do is try chasing him. Cousins fired the pass and Bisi made a sweet leaping grab in the end zone.

Finally, I wanted to highlight the play of fullback C.J. Ham. He is truly one of the unsung heroes in this offensive system. His versatility and run blocking skills have changed the offense. When the Vikings want to run a lead play with Ham, he’ll square up in the hole and execute a big block. If Minnesota dials up a play-action look, he’ll slip into the flat and make a play through the air. Ham is really difficult to bring down and has picked up valuable yardage in high-leverage situations. His versatility is something the offensive staff has continually capitalized upon. I pulled out several of his key lead blocks and one notable reception from Sunday’s game:

Final Impressions

The Vikings’ defense was more disciplined and it allowed the team to limit Detroit’s offensive success. Minnesota’s passing attack will continue to improve if wide receiver Adam Thielen returns this week. Even without Thielen, the Vikings still have the fourth-best explosive play rate in the NFL (12%), according to Sharp Football Stats. The offensive line is providing Cousins with time to confidently make throws downfield. When things are completely clicking, we are noticing the balance and explosiveness of this offense. The execution of Minnesota’s outside zone blocking scheme has also been a contributing factor to the team’s success. If the defense continues to tie up loose ends, the Vikings could catch fire at the right time.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up, Mr. House. Eric Thompson over at The Daily Norseman sent me.

    Honestly, if Zimmer wanted to, we have the bodies on defense to rotate every position with no starters besides Barr and Kendricks playing more than 80-90% of the snaps. Sendejo allows us to rotate four safeties in a way that Marcus Epps didn't, much as I hated to lose Epps as a developmental project, and Watts can give us more quality snaps at this point than Holmes or Mata'afa. I also don't think I'm the only person who's noticed an uptick in the performances of Weatherly and Johnson lately.

    Nice to see Kirk having enough confidence in his receivers to make some more challenging throws. I was glad to see Conklin get more targets the last three games - eight to Smith's 10 - although I hope they don't take a bite out of Rudolph's moving forward. And I just wanted to note how well Mattison caught and ran with the ball against Seattle (I haven't had a chance to watch the Lions game yet); he really exceeded my expectations there.

    Ham's only a RFA next year, but I'd love to see the team find the cap room to give him a three- or four-year extension.