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The Vikings have one major offensive strength and it could be a key during Sunday's Wild Card playoff game in New Orleans. Daniel House unveils the secret recipe for success!by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
As the Vikings embark on the playoffs, they will face one of their biggest challenges of the season. New Orleans features one of the most dynamic and creative offensive attacks in the league. Quarterback Drew Brees is firing on all cylinders and running back Alvin Kamara is catching stride. Wide receiver Michael Thomas also set the NFL single-season record for receptions (149). The Saints are getting healthier on defense and will present challenges for the Vikings’ passing attack.
However, one of Minnesota’s biggest strengths could be a difference-maker during Sunday’s Wild Card playoff game in New Orleans.
All year, play-action passing has been an important aspect of the Vikings’ offense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins thrives when he gets out of the pocket by design. Minnesota implemented a system that features bootlegs, screens and outside zone rushing concepts. Assistant head coach Gary Kubiak’s experience has complemented offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s background in multiple offensive systems. When Minnesota uses play-action and quick passing, the offense often achieves a rhythm. During the regular season, Cousins was 91-for-124 (73.4%) with 1,235 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions via play-action, according to Luke Johnson. The Vikings have occasionally attached creative screens, throwbacks and vertical passing concepts to play-action packages. When looking at the complete scope of the offense, it closely mirrors the systems of Mike and Kyle Shanahan.
With the Vikings set to square off against the Saints on Sunday, I wanted to dive into how the offense may attack New Orleans’ defense. After watching All-22, I was drawn to the schemes of San Francisco and Tennessee. Each of their game plans heavily featured play-action passing and bootlegs. New Orleans has been battling injuries in the second-level of its defense. Linebackers A.J. Klein and Kiko Alonso have missed time with injuries and their absences clearly impacted the entire unit. Klein and Alonso are ready for the playoffs, which will provide a lift to the Saints’ defense.
I just charted the All-22 of Saints-49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo had so much success off play-action. He finished 10-for-13 (77%) with 186 yards and two touchdowns.— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) December 30, 2019
Jimmy G was sacked on two other PA dropbacks. Part of the #Vikings' scheme should center around play-action/boots. pic.twitter.com/O8CY7zyycY
However, it’s worth noting how much trouble the Saints are having with play-action. I went back and charted the 49ers and Titans games to find trends. When using play-action, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was 10-for-13 (77%) with 186 yards and two touchdowns in a 48-46 win over the Saints. The 49ers used boot action, quick slants, deep over routes and passes in the flat. During Garoppolo’s vertical touchdown pass, watch how the entire defense moves with the jet motion. Eyes shift to the movement, which gives Garoppolo time to set his feet and throw deep.
In the last two clips above, San Francisco ran the same play back-to-back times. Garoppolo faked the stretch play, while fullback Kyle Juszczyk leaked to the backside flat. One play later, tight end George Kittle aligned in the same spot and was wide-open in the opposite flat. With all of the motion, play-action and boots the 49ers used, the Saints defense was on its toes. Minnesota has to be very creative and tweak the route concepts it uses. If the Vikings can deploy a little misdirection, they can mess with the discipline of New Orleans’ defense. The Saints' defense features a high volume of single-high safety looks, which provides a few different offensive opportunties.
If the Saints are in Cover-3, the Vikings may utilize the Yankee Concept. We talked about this play in previous posts. The wide receiver runs a deep post, which attracts the safety’s attention. While this is happening, the tight end is running an over route/crosser. With the defense biting on the running action and deep post, one side of the field is vacated for the tight end. There are also ways to spice this play up by having another tight end or fullback leak to the backside. Not only that, but jet or reverse looks can cause even more pre-snap confusion.
Minnesota can also exploit the Saints’ single-high looks by attacking the seam with deep vertical routes. There are plenty of opportunities for the Vikings to use "hi-low" plays like dagger concepts. This play involves the slot receiver running a vertical route, while the X receiver utilizes an intermediate dig. This play will cause conflict in the back half of the defense, especially between the safety and dropping linebacker. I could see the Vikings utilizing this concept to create an explosive play with wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
In the Titans' game against New Orleans, Tennessee appeared to call a similar variation of a staple New England Patriots play. In fact, during the recent NFL-100 show, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said the play-action under route to the tight end was one of Rob Gronkowski’s favorite plays. In the clip from the Tennessee game, New Orleans’ linebackers bit on the play-fake and tight end Jonnu Smith leaked behind the linebackers. Ryan Tannehill gets the ball out quick and creates an explosive play. Like Garoppolo, Tannehill also thrived off play-action against New Orleans. In those situations, he finished 9-for-11 with 174 yards and two touchdowns.
Ryan Tannehill is thriving off play-action and had success against New Orleans two weeks ago.— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) December 30, 2019
Tannehill was 9-for-11 with 174 yards and two TDs via play-action. The Titans ran some crossers, screens and quick passes in the flat.
These are things the #Vikings do well. pic.twitter.com/uY3S3Yqyd3
I liked some of the wrinkles Tennessee attached to the play-action looks, such as the screen play above. Tannehill uses the play-fake and the defense is distracted by jet-motion. The play looked like it might go to the motion player, but the running back slips into the flat for a well-executed screen pass. Again, we are seeing the benefit of motion/misdirection, quick passing and screens. These are all strengths within the Vikings’ offensive scheme.
Stefanski will need to be creative with the passing and rushing concepts. With running back Dalvin Cook returning for the playoffs, there are more wrinkles the Vikings can install. Cook is a threat in the passing game and flourishes within the outside zone scheme. In all of Minnesota’s wins, the offense was moving the pocket, using quick passing and running the ball well. The Saints have been without top defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (ankle), who was placed on injured reserve. New Orleans also lost defensive end Marcus Davenport to a foot injury in Week 14. Rankin and Davenport were disruptive in the 2018 matchup and provided challenges for the Vikings’ offensive line. In the secondary, we will be waiting to see if safeties Vonn Bell (knee) and Marcus Williams (groin) are active. Cornerback Eli Apple is also battling an ankle injury and missed New Orleans’ Week 17 game. Bell and Williams were limited during Wednesday’s walk-through (participation estimated), while Apple did not participate.
One can expect Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore to shadow wide receiver Stefon Diggs, so creative route concepts will be very important. Lattimore has only allowed a 42 percent catch rate, 11.7 yards per catch and one touchdown since Week 4, according to Pro Football Focus. Minnesota will need to draw up creative play designs and prominently feature its tight ends. When the Vikings have gone away from quick passing and play-action, the offense hasn't looked the same. If Cousins starts taking deep drops, the Saints will tee-off with aggressive blitzes.
Courtesy: All-22 cuts via NFL Game Pass