After the Vikings’ loss at Philadelphia, there was a worry that the Eagles had come up with a blueprint to knock-out the Vikings often times struggling offense. When that same blueprint was executed effectively by the Bears, the worry was confirmed, and the blueprint reinforced.
What’s more, that same blueprint will likely be used by every team the Vikings face the rest of the year, until the Vikings find a way to beat it.
What is the blueprint?
That blueprint is basically to take away the Vikings intermediate and deep passing game on passing downs by keeping the safeties back while bringing blitz pressure- particularly on the edges- to break the weak link in the Vikings offense- it’s offensive line- and particularly the tackles.
Meanwhile, on rushing plays, the linebackers would cheat toward defending the rush, stepping up quickly to fill interior gaps, while the defensive line and edge rushers focus on containing and defending the run.
Why is that blueprint so effective?
It’s not the weak offensive line that makes this blueprint effective, although that helps. It’s that the Vikings have very clear tendencies in play-calling that telegraph the play call and make it much easier for opposing defenses to identify the play in advance, and both play call and cheat accordingly.
In fact, you could say these known play-calling tendencies is what makes the offensive line weak- or at least contributes to it- as it’s more difficult to block players that know what the play is going to be.
A very easy-to-read key for the opposing defense is whether the Vikings QB is under-center or not. When the QB is under-center, the Vikings run 76% of the time. And, not surprisingly, when the QB is in shot-gun, the Vikings pass nearly 75% of the time.
If you go further and eliminate obvious passing situations when the QB is under-center, for example, it becomes even easier for opposing defenses to identify running plays. Add in other situational factors and opposing defenses are likely to identify run or pass successfully on 80-90% of Vikings offensive plays.
Beyond that, when the Vikings hand-off to a RB, they tend to run between the tackles, which also simplifies run defense.
So, how do you defeat the blueprint?
One of the things the Vikings’ coaching staff did during the bye-week was a self-scouting analysis. It would seem rather strange if such glaring tendencies as play-calling based on QB depth would go unnoticed in such an exercise. And yet in both games since the bye-week, those tendencies did not change.
But changing those tendencies is the first step in beating the blueprint. Play-action under-center on first down. Running outside the tackles- when was the last time the Vikings ran a pitch outside to McKinnon or Asiata? Have they ever? Mixing those plays in starts getting the defense off-balance and forces them to defend more of the field on any given play.
But don’t forget about the deep ball either. Especially on first down. It may not always lead a big gain, but it will give the defense some second thoughts about loading defending the run.
Enter Pat Shurmur
Norv Turner’s decision to resign, citing differences that made things difficult, came as a big surprise mid-season. But Turner also said he thought it could be a good thing for the Vikings offense, and allow them to, "get on the same page.’’
But the mere fact that Pat Shurmur will be calling plays, rather than Norv's Turner, despite maintaining the same scheme, will lead to a break from the tendencies of the past. My guess is that while Mike Zimmer did not want to replace Norv, now that he stepped down he’ll be ready to try a new approach. As a defensive coach he knows the value of mixing things up in terms of offensive play-calling to make things more difficult for the defense.
Pat Shurmur is a west coast offense guy, which generally revolves around a short, high-percentage passsing game and more of a finesse, rather than power, run game. In Philadelphia under Chip Kelly last year, he ran Kelly’s no-huddle spread concept. I don't expect the Vikings offense to adopt any wholesale changes this year, but I’d be surprised if Shurmur doesn't put his own stamp on play-calling, and install or utilize plays he has had success with Bradford in the past.
Hopefully that will help the Vikings offense with if not a new look, at least a different approach and rhythm to help throw off the defensive blueprint that has worked so effectively the last couple games.
What About the Offensive Line?
While breaking from the past in terms of play-calling tendencies will help defeat the blueprint and help the offensive line by not telegraphing the play-call, the offensive line still needs to play better.
Most of the offensive line outside of Joe Berger and maybe Alex Boone has been a disappointment this year. But losing Kalil and Smith I thought was addition by subtraction as it allowed guys with upside to replace them and hopefully improve each week. And for a couple weeks anyway that appeared to be the case. Clemmings and Sirles, while certainly not Joe Thomas and Phil Loadholt in his prime, managed to give Bradford the time to get the ball out most of the time, albeit with pressure and hits.
But with the acquisition of Jake Long, suddenly there was musical chairs at the tackle position. Clemmings was moved back to RT, despite being better suited at left tackle, Sirles was benched despite arguably being the better of the two since taking over, and Long, despite only one padded practice since being out over a year and with a new team and offense, was thrust in a left tackle. But then Clemmings moved back and forth at times between left and right tackle.
I'm not sure who's decision it was to do all this, but it was as stupid as it sounds and it showed. A lot of being a good offensive lineman is getting into a groove in terms of your technique, and when your asked to move around from one side to another, it screws things up.
I'm not sure who will emerge as the better LT this year between Clemmings and Long, but it should be a competition. At this point, I'd give Clemmings the nod as the incumbent, until such time as Long shows he’s better in practice and has had more time to gear up for game speed again- which he clearly was not ready for. I'd also keep Sirles at RT, who's done as good as any other RT we've had this year, and mostly better.
All this second-guessing and flailing when it comes to managing the offensive line does not speak well of new offensive line coach Tony Sparano. Frankly he's been unimpressive so far. I don't see a single offensive lineman that has improved under his coaching. I do see some questionable, at best, decisions to release Austin Shepherd, who may well have been a better RT than Sirles, and drafting Willie Beavers- Sparano’s pick- in the 4th round and very much a bust at this point.
Be that as it may, hopefully Pat Shurmur can help stabilize the situation at both tackles positions by choosing to stick with Clemmings at LT and Sirles at RT, and giving Long more time to get up to speed. Changing up the play-calling should also help.
I think Norv Turner may have been right in thinking the change could be good for the Vikings. A new set of eyes and approach to the offense could be just the thing to give the offense new life, and beat the blueprint that has pinned it down the last two weeks.
We’ll get our first look against Detroit on Sunday.