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Vikings Offensive Scheme- Thoughts For the Future

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As the Vikings play through this season, and the Vikings offense continues to be at the bottom of the league- despite having real talent at the skill positions- I begin to question whether this scheme is best suited for the Vikings personnel, and how successful it can be now or in the future.

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As good as the Vikings defense has become, the offense has made no progress in production since the Christian Ponder era.  This is a problem.  It's especially a problem as the Vikings now have a much better QB in Teddy Bridgewater, have a more talented receiver corps, and still have the best RB in the league.  And yet, despite all the talent at the skill positions, the Vikings offense remains near the bottom of the league in ranking for both scoring and yards per game.

What's the Problem?

Well, in the Ponder-era, the problem was the QB, and the offensive line.  Today, the problem is solely the offensive line.   That problem is magnified in Norv Turner's Air Coryell offense.  The Air Coryell offense combines a power-run game with a vertical passing attack to stretch the field and force opponents to defend the entire field.  That is all well and good, but it requires a great offensive line to be successful.  Something the Vikings do not have, and don't seem likely to have anytime soon- given the age and injuries of some offensive linemen.

The reality is, rather than defend the entire field, opposing defenses focus on stopping the run and attacking the weak link- the offensive line.   Using 5-7 step drops and longer developing routes, opposing defenses have more time to pressure and sack the QB, which they have done repeatedly and consistently since Norv and Teddy took over.  In order to be successful, the Vikings must establish the run, and continually run the ball to make it easier for the offensive line (run blocking is much easier than pass blocking) while utilizing the best RB in the league.

The problem with that approach is four-fold:

1)  It allows opposing defenses to focus on stopping the run, thereby exposing the weak link (offensive line pass protection) and force the Vikings' offense out of its game plan, and as a conservative run-oriented offense in a passing league, it makes it difficult to score points or come from behind.

2)  It under-utilizes the strengths the Vikings have at QB, and in their receiver corps, as it makes them more dependent on the weakness of the offensive line to reach their potential.

3)  While Bridgewater's deep-ball accuracy is somewhat overblown, it is also not his strong-suit.

4)  The Vikings receivers are not ideally suited to an Air Coryell offense, primarily as they are not tall, 'win jump ball type' receivers, and our TEs are not dynamic enough receivers as they need to be to make Norv's system work best.

Given that, the current system is not the best suited to the Vikings personnel- and it shows in the lack of production despite talent at all the skill positions.   Therefore, something needs to change.

It's not something that can be changed mid-season, but it is something that should be changed at the end of the season, regardless if the Vikings win the Super Bowl or miss the playoffs.  In the meantime, the current offensive scheme should be modified as much as possible to better accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of the players on the field.

Off-Season Changes

First, here is a link to a nice summary of offensive schemes, which is important in assessing the Vikings offense.

There needs to be a meeting of the minds.   Particularly between offensive coordinator Norv Turner, offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, and head coach Mike Zimmer.   Turner of course is a disciple of the Air-Coryell system, which the Vikings implemented when they took him on as OC.   What is interesting, and perhaps not as well known, is that Jeff Davidson, former OC with Carolina and assistant coach at New England, worked under Charlie Weis, who implemented the Erhardt-Perkins (EP) system under Bill Belichick, which along with Tom Brady, helped in winning 3 Super Bowls for the Patriots in the early 2000s.  Davidson went on to run that system when he was named OC for Carolina.   Davidson also implemented a zone-blocking scheme, as the Carolina offensive line was often over-powered in its man-blocking scheme.

Mike Zimmer, while obviously a defensive mind, worked under Bill Parcells (also a defensive coach) who used an EP system, and talks regularly with Zimmer.   Charlie Weis, 59, who also worked under Bill Parcells when he was with the Giants, is currently available, having had a couple of largely unsuccessful coaching jobs in the college ranks, after leaving a successful offensive turn-around in Kansas City in 2010.

All this is a prelude to a couple of options for the Vikings this off-season.

Option One:  change to a zone-blocking system

Jeff Davidson did this in 2007 with Carolina with success, and could do so again with the Vikings.  Changing to a zone-blocking system in an Air Coryell offense is also not unprecedented- Dallas did it a couple years ago to great success.  The move to zone-blocking is currently the trend in the NFL-  8 teams having implemented it in just the last 2 years.  The reason for its popularity is because it allows you to get more from a weaker offensive line, utilizing leverage more effectively, and better disguising run or pass to the defense. It can also be more effective against more athletic defensive linemen, which has been the trend as well.

Moving to a zone-blocking scheme (ZBS) from a primarily man- or power-blocking scheme could help shore up a weaker offensive line for the Vikings, while still maintaining Norv's Air Coryell system.

Option Two:  change to an EP system

This would likely involve releasing Norv Turner (and probably Scott Turner) as OC and QB coach, and giving Jeff Davidson and/or someone like Charlie Weis control to implement a new system better designed for the Vikings offensive personnel, and a more versatile system around Teddy Bridgewater.   This would result in a philosophical change from the run-first philosophy that has been employed post-Favre, to a neutral stance where run or pass could be emphasized in a given game plan or adjusted during a game as necessary, according to what the defense gives you.   Of course there is more to it than that.  It would mean learning entirely new terminology and route running concepts (similar to the option routes in Norv's offense)  that can be difficult for receivers to learn (although some argue its easier), and easier for a good QB to execute.

Given that Bridgewater is still very early in his career, this would be a system built around him, just as the EP system and Tom Brady have been mainstays in Bill Belichick's offense for many years.

This option involves the most risk, particularly in the short-term as players have to learn a new system, but potentially has the reward of perhaps the system best suited for the Vikings offense, and the one most easily maintained in the face of changing personnel- just as has been the case in New England- while offering the most versatility.

Overall

Going with an EP system may be the best option as it ultimately allows the Vikings to go with a system best suited to its players, rather than only a partial solution.

I'm not sure simply changing to a zone-blocking scheme is enough by itself.   Creating a system that is more run-pass agnostic makes it more difficult for a defense to key on any one particular play or player.  it may also lead to fewer, but more productive, carries for Adrian Peterson, which would be good as he gets into his 30s.

Adopting an EP system may also prove more effective in the red-zone, where stretching the field is not an option.

But overall, the EP system is one that can use either zone or man blocking, takes what the defense gives, rather than run to set-up the pass, or pass to set-up the run, can be normal or up-tempo, huddle or no-huddle, most plays incorporate route combinations including short-, intermediate, and long-routes, can use under-center, pistol or shot-gun depth, uses group route assignments (route combinations based on defensive alignment and coverage, and which any receiver can play any position in the group)

With efficient terminology that can be quickly communicated, the EP system allows an offense to either run plays quickly- up-tempo or no-huddle- or allows more time at the line of scrimmage to read defenses and audible as necessary.   In the hands of a capable QB, such as Tom Brady with the Patriots, and potentially Teddy Bridgewater as well as he masters his craft, it is a system very difficult to defense.

The Cowboys have in recent years basically taken this path, and with considerable success.

Once implemented, the EP system makes it easier for a capable QB such as Bridgewater to get the ball out quicker.  By reading defenses pre-snap, he'll then adjust his read according to who is most likely to be open based on his read of the defense.  Often that results in a throw to his first read, just as is the case with Tom Brady, allowing him to get the ball out quicker, and making it very difficult for the opposing defense to pressure him.

The EP system is essentially a finite number of plays that can be run out of multiple formations and personnel groupings.  Each play can have route combination and formation built into as little as one or two words, making it very efficient to communicate quickly- allowing for up-tempo or no-huddle, or more time to read defenses in normal tempo.  The route combinations include option routes based on the defensive look, alignment and coverage.  So, while understanding the play call can be easy for receivers, mastering the option routes can be more difficult.   The Vikings current receiver corps (with the likely exception of CP) seem savvy-enough to make those reads and be on the same page as Bridgewater when it comes to option routes, but it would take some time to get it down completely.   While some receivers have not been successful in New England as they couldn't get the option routes down, the Patriots have, by and large, been successful in finding enough good receivers through a lot of roster turn-over to make the system work.

At the same time, the EP system does not abandon the run, or necessarily relegate it to an after-thought- although that is possible.  An EP system, being essentially agnostic in favoring either run or pass, can utilize more or less run plays according to what the defense presents.  In 7-man or fewer fronts, more runs can be called.  In 8-man or greater fronts, fewer runs can be called.  It is a system with a lot of versatility, making it more difficult for defenses to key on any one particular aspect.

Maintaining Norv's Air Coryell system, by contrast is an expensive proposition.  It requires not only an able QB, but a tall, fast, receiver corps, including a good pass-catching TE, a solid power RB, and most importantly, a great offensive line.  In the salary cap era, having basically everything in terms of players and talent on offense is not sustainable.  Particularly when you have a good, veteran QB past his rookie contract.  An EP system can be very productive with a mediocre offensive line, and overall average receiver corps.  It does require a savvy QB who can make the throws.  Teddy Bridgewater fits that role well.

Why Not a West Coast Offense?

Teddy Bridgewater is also suited to a West Coast offense.  Indeed, in the draft many scouts suggested that system is where he would be best suited- given what was viewed as less that ideal arm strength.   The problem these days with the West Coast offense, which is predicated on short passing, and is still the most utilized offensive scheme, is that defenses have been adapting to it.

Defenses are drafting more press-man corners and abandoning zone schemes like Tampa-2 to better defense west coast offenses.  And slowly it has been making them less effective.  Additionally, the combination of short passing and strong run game, as the Vikings have used previously under Bill Musgrave, does little to spread out the defense.  Indeed, the 8-man front was suited to both defend the run and west coast offense at once.

The EP system, by contrast, does not have a distinct defensive scheme best-suited to defeat it.   How well it works depends mainly on the offense's ability to master it, particularly at the QB position.

What About This Year?

Well, for this year any sort of offensive scheme overhaul mid-season is out of the question.  However, it may be possible to incorporate more blitz option routes and max pass protection blocking schemes to better protect Bridgewater in the face of pressure, even if it results in fewer receiver options.  More shotgun formations may also help Teddy get the ball out faster, even if it eliminates play-action.

But for the most part, the Vikings simply need the offensive line to play better, if they are to be more productive.