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What Should We Expect from Pat Shurmur?

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings-Training Camp
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

By all accounts, one of the things the Vikings are working on this off-season is installing a new offensive scheme. Pat Shurmur has been given the reins, and early in the off-season Mike Zimmer briefly mentioned having almost an entirely new system. I speculated back in March what that new system may be like, but some developments since then have made it clear that the Vikings will adopt a new style of run-game- based on the offensive linemen and running backs acquired since then, and tidbits of plays run during OTAs, mini-camp, and now training camp.

I expect the system to be some type of pro-spread offense, incorporating aspects of Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense and some Spread offense concepts- systems both Pat Shurmur and Sam Bradford are well versed in. Here are a few concepts I would expect to see, and a key difference from previous years.

Not So Much Power Run

In Adrian Peterson’s glory days, when the Vikings had a top power rushing attack with AP behind a fullback and Big Phil at right tackle (and in this case 2 TEs to boot), power-running off right-tackle was an often-used play. This is a classic off-tackle power run, complete with pulling guard and fullback lead blocker:

This scouting report even shows how you can read the play by how close Fusco and Loadholt lined-up to each other, and whether Fusco would pull or not. But this wasn’t about deception- power I-formation, double TE set- could there be any doubt what the play call was? But if Big Phil decides to seal off the edge with a cross-block, who’s gonna stop him? All Fusco had to do was get in the way of the DB- all too willing to take a dive- and with both TEs picking up LBs and Fulton too, AP is at the 2nd level in no time.

That gif makes you kinda nostalgic.

But all the key players on that play are gone. AP, Big Phil, Fulton, Ellison. Fusco too. And without an overpowering lineman, good blocking fullback and TE, and excellent power RB, that play doesn’t work so well. As the Vikings found out in subsequent years.

And so with new personnel, scheme needs to change to fit them. The power run won’t be discontinued completely, but expect it to be used much less than in the past.

More Zone Run

Back in 2014, when Pat Shurmur was OC in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly, and LeSean McCoy was RB (Cook is sometimes compared to McCoy), they ran inside zone runs like this one against the Redskins:

As you can see, in a zone blocking scheme, the offensive line all steps and moves in the same direction, looking to move defensive linemen laterally (or stop them from doing so on the back side) thereby creating a seam for the RB to exploit. Those linemen not covered by an opposing linemen go to the second level to make their blocks. McCoy has the vision, speed and agility to get through the seam and cutback for a big gain- something we can expect from Dalvin Cook as well.

Below is another gif of an inside zone run, this one by the Cowboys against the Packers in last season’s playoff game. As you can see, it takes just a little lateral movement to open a seam- and Ezekiel Elliott is able to slip through to the next level for a nice gain. The key blocks there were Travis Frederick (72) on Letroy Guion and Zack Martin (70) first helping to chip the DT, then sealing off the LB to spring Elliott. Both linemen were All-Pros last year, but these are blocks Joe Berger can make routinely, and Pat Elflein did too at OSU- for Ezekiel Elliott.

Part of what makes this play work is that the Packers have only six players in the box initially. The free safety is deep, the corners spread wide. The strong safety, who made a nice tackle, was walking up from 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

The other thing that makes this play work, besides Elliott’s running ability, is that this could be a run or pass. The Cowboys have a 3WR set, and the Packers are spread out in a nickel formation. The Cowboys have a capable QB in Dak Prescott, a TE in Jason Witten who can block and is also a receiving threat, and two very capable receivers in Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, with Terrance Williams a decent 3rd, and of course Zeke.

One can imagine the Packers playing the Vikings in a similar fashion, with Bradford, Cook, Rudolph, Thielen, Diggs and perhaps Treadwell or Floyd on the field.

Simple Spread Passing

Another aspect of Shurmur’s offense may be use of spread concepts in the passing game. Here is an illustration of the Patriots using a spread formation to great success:

As you can see, the Patriots line up in spread formation with 4 wide. The Chiefs show press-man coverage. The Patriots then use pre-snap motion to further spread the Chiefs defense:

The back has moved to the slot, and the TE (Gronkowski) has spread wider outside the numbers. This creates 5 one-on-one match-ups for Brady to consider, along with the defensive formation. He knows the routes, sees the coverage and formation, and knows where he’s going with the ball before its snapped.

That’s an easy play to execute and it goes for 18 yards. Nothing fancy, just creating space for skilled receivers to use to their advantage in match-ups. It’s an easy, high percentage throw for Brady, and one he gets out in about 2 seconds, making it virtually impossible for the defensive front to stop, no matter how good (or bad) the pass protection is.

While this example is a hallmark bread-and-butter Tom Brady throw, Sam Bradford can make these same throws all day long. The Vikings have the receivers to execute these routes well, and with such a quick throw, pass protection is a non-issue. It also makes blitzing a much more risky venture, leaving fewer defenders to make a tackle in space.

The Vikings offense has been playing Kyle Rudolph outside on occasion during training camp so far, similar to how Gronk is positioned in this play, to create these type of favorable matchups.

Here is another one with Gronk playing more of an H-back role, shifting from the backfield to the slot. This is something Bucky Hodges could be used for in this play:

Here Gronk is used more as a decoy running a seam route, and distracts the CB from the outside WR - Hodges could perform this role well, allowing for an easy completion for a first down in this example.

Run-Pass Option (RPO)

Another design element Pat Shurmur may employ, especially with a veteran QB in Sam Bradford, are run-pass option plays. This isn’t about the QB deciding to run or pass himself, but rather the QB reading the defense, and calling either a run or pass out of the same formation depending on what the defense shows him pre-snap.

Here is an example by the Seahawks against the Packers:

The Packers had eight in the box on that play, and the CB also bit on the run fake, leaving the receiver wide open with only a safety to beat. Had the Packers had fewer guys in the box, Russell Wilson may have opted for the inside run. But seeing the box stacked, he opted for what he thought may have been a one-on-one match-up outside. As it turned out, the CB let the WR go free, resulting in an easy completion for a TD.

A similar play design is run by the 49ers here:

On this play, the QB is looking to see how the defense covers the back-side trips formation receivers. If they’re covered well, he hands the ball off for the strong-side run. If not, the run fake can get the defense flowing one way and set-up the bubble screen on the back side, which results in a long gain for the 49ers against the Giants defense. Notice the good blocking by the 49er receivers that springs the long gain.

I believe this is another play Shurmur mentioned they were working on briefly in a press conference earlier this week. It’s also a play that with Dalvin Cook in the backfield, and receivers that can block well like Thielen, Treadwell, and Floyd, can spring a guy like Diggs for a long run.

Another play that could yield good results and take advantage of Dalvin Cook’s receiving ability is this wheel route play using a mesh route (receivers on either end running short crossing routes) to create confusion underneath, while creating a mismatch in coverage:

The initial read looks like a strong-side run with a double TE set, but with both TEs running short inside routes, clearing the way for the RB (McCoy) to run a wheel route while clogging the way for a LB in coverage- something the Vikings would love to see against Dalvin Cook. Again, this is a play the Vikings have excellent personnel to be able to run very successfully.

These next two plays are basically the run setting up the pass. Both plays are essentially run from the same formation, and both initially look like backside sweeps, with the center and tackle pulling, and the handoff (or fake) to the RB:

Then, just when the defense thinks it’s gonna be another run:

Homerun.

Again, this is a play the Vikings have excellent personnel to execute. Bradford is very good in roll-outs, Cook is a RB a defense will have to pay attention to, especially with linemen pulling. And, while Kyle Rudolph could execute this play very well, this play could be an excellent one to use Bucky Hodges, whose speed/height combination would create a mismatch even if the linebacker or safety played it better than the Giants did in this example.

Another bread-and-butter type play you would expect to see a certain amount from Pat Shurmur is this crossing/mesh route concept underneath:

Not particularly thrilling or innovative, but it puts pressure on LBs and safeties to defend crossing routes underneath, which particularly in man coverage, as shown here, can be a tough assignment if a little out of position, or anticipating another route- as the safety was here.

Another run-pass option play I would expect to see regularly given the Vikings personnel on offense this year, is a 4-vertical spread concept, designed to create isolated match-ups for receivers, and/or more space inside for a RB to exploit. Here are a couple examples:

As you can see, the Eagles line up in a 4 wide formation, spreading out the Giants defense. The resulting play went as follows:

It took a nice play and pursuit by the backside linebacker to keep that to a 5-yard gain.

But all the inside zone runs, the short passing routes, bubble screens, etc. work to set up a defense for the occasional home-run. In this case a 3-WR formation and a 4-vertical, run-pass option concept, isolating receivers 1-on-1, which in this case led to two open receivers. Bradford nails the go route for an easy TD in blown coverage, as the safety played one receiver while a CB let another one go by- expecting safety help.

This is another play the Vikings have excellent personnel on offense to run effectively. Between Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Laquon Treadwell, Michael Floyd, Jarius Wright, and even Bucky Hodges, the Vikings have more than enough quality receivers to win one-on-one match-ups in spread formations like this. This is also a play where after the play-action, Dalvin Cook or Latavius Murray could help in pass protection. Obviously you wouldn’t expect blown coverage like this every time, but with four good route runners on the field, it definitely challenges the depth of an opposing defense’s DB corps to cover well every time or give up a big play.

Bottom Line

Given Pat Shurmur’s background, and what we’ve seen and heard so far this off-season and in training camp, expect more zone-runs, more spread concepts, run-pass option plays, and more crossing/mesh routes underneath from the Vikings offense, punctuated by occasional deep balls to keep the defense off-balance. But I would expect that ‘big-plays’ could happen just as easily with short throws and runs as with the less frequent deep balls, given the talent the Vikings have in the backfield, and the yards-after-catch (YAC) this type of offensive scheme is designed to create.