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Kevin Stefanski and the Return of Pat Shurmur’s Offense?

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Miami Dolphins v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

I was fortunate to have decided (last minute) to attend the Vikings-Dolphins game in person at US Bank stadium. It was kind of surreal to be sitting in such a wonderful venue and watching the Vikings go through the Dolphins defense like a hot knife through butter - amassing a 21 point lead in the first quarter. I almost had to consult the program to see what teams were playing.

Dalvin Cook was making the kinds of plays that made Dalvin Cook the highest rated offensive player in the draft two years ago; Kirk Cousins completed every pass he threw - spreading the ball around with a perfect 158.3 passer rating - just what you would hope for from a $84 million guaranteed investment.

On the defensive side, it seemed like mostly 3-and-outs for the Fins, with an occasional 6-and out. And late in the game, It was rather enjoyable to see a steady stream of sacks on third down - and fourth down too.

I was late getting back from my halftime beer and pizza, so I missed the botched defensive call (according to Mike Zimmer) that led to the Fins TD run to begin the 2nd half, so that left only Cousins’ pick six as the only bad play for the home team. As bad as it looked - the first reaction on most pick sixes is WTF was the QB thinking? - but upon further review Kyle Rudolph could have done a better job keeping the CB from jumping the route. Cousins’ post-game explanation that it’s a bang-bang play, and a guy you normally expect not to be able to make the play was able to jump the route. But I digress.

The main thing is that the Vikings offense started very strong, then as a team the Vikings coasted through the middle quarters, before finishing strong and putting the game out of reach pretty early in the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was largely what the Vikings are supposed to do against a team that ranks pretty low (29th and 30th) in both offense and defense in terms of yards/yards allowed respectively.

Defensively we’ve seen performances like this in the past this season, but offensively this was something we haven’t seen much at all. Balanced, productive, good execution. This begs the question of what happened - why this suddenly strong performance offensively - particularly running the ball - when this hasn’t been the case for the most part all season.

Why Is the Offense Good Now?

Well, you could argue that one good game doesn’t make the offense good, and this performance was against one of the worst defenses in the league - and missing one of their best cornerbacks.

You could also say that with the change in offensive coordinators, game planning for the opposing defense is much more difficult - especially when the new guy has no track record calling plays or anything for that matter. Playing at home helps too.

In any case, even against somewhat poor defenses, and playing at home, the Vikings have struggled mightily to run the ball effectively all season - largely due to the ineffective offensive line - but also for lack of calling running plays.

Getting off to a 21 point lead in the first quarter makes it a lot easier to call running plays thereafter. But it was also the running plays that helped create the 21 point lead in the first place.

So how did the Vikings manage to run for 220 yards on Sunday with the same ol’ mediocre offensive line they’ve had all season?

Enter Kevin Stefanski.

Kevin Stefanski and the Return of Pat Shurmur’s Offense

Last season, Pat Shurmur ran a west-coast offense that came mostly from Andy Reid, but with a little from Chip Kelly mixed in. That meant a fair amount of short-yardage passing, play-action, commitment to the run, with occasional spread formations and/or deeper shots down the field.

Of course that could be said for just about every offense in the league to one degree or another, but Shurmur did employ a few other elements regularly - also used throughout the league - that characterized his offensive scheme to some degree. These elements seem to have been adopted considerably by Kevin Stefanski - the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator.

Let’s have a look and each of them and how they’ve helped the Vikings offense be more productive - at least against Miami.

Unbalanced Line

One element Pat Shurmur used from time-to-time in his game-plans was an unbalanced line. Whether the addition of an extra tackle on one side, two tight-ends on one side, or some other combination that results in four guys on one side of the center and two on the other. John DeFilippo used this on occasion too, but not all that much.

On the opening drive against Miami, Stefanski used an unbalanced line almost every play. Let’s look at each play.

First Play

Vikings open with an unbalanced line on the left side

On the opening play of the game, the Vikings used an unbalanced line with two tight ends on the left side. Miami responds with a strong safety outside the tight ends and linebackers cheated toward the unbalanced side - as you would expect. The Vikings are in a two TE 12 personnel group, with Diggs and Thielen on the outside. First and ten, this looks like a run, which it was. The Vikings called a zone run with the offensive line shifting left as a unit off the snap. But instead of running to the unbalanced side, the Vikings run to the weak side, with Cook having to beat the defensive end Cameron Wake- who was unblocked- which he did for a 6 yard gain. A better tackle/pursuit by Wake would have led to a short gain, but Cook was able to run through an arm tackle by Wake to turn a one-yard gain into six - shown below.

Cook makes a short cutback into a seam created by zone blocking and Wake a little late to the party.

Second Play

2nd Play opens with same 2 TE unbalanced line, Cook in backfield, but with both Diggs and Thielen out right.

The second play of the drive sets up very similar to the first play, only with Thielen outside right and Diggs in the slot right. Once again Miami has their strong safety outside the TEs, linebackers cheated to the unbalanced side, and the single-high safety over the two WRs right.

This time Diggs goes in motion left, but the slot corner does not follow, indicating zone coverage. The play begins with play-action to both Diggs on a sweep and to Cook, which holds the linebackers (who were a little out of position based on the unbalanced line) and the slot corner for a second, allowing Remmers to make a block on the slot corner, and Brian O’Neill and Tom Compton to disrupt the linebackers once the ball was dumped off on the weak side to Cook on a screen. Thielen took his corner on a go route 25 yards downfield, and the safety missed a tackle en route to a 27-yard gain.

Once again the unbalanced line had the Miami front cheated to the strong side, and the play-action fake to Diggs and Cook held them long enough for the Vikings blockers to get good position on downfield blocks, springing Cook for a big gain.

Good downfield blocking and unbalanced line deception on 2nd & 4 leads to a big gain on a screen pass to Cook

Third Play

Vikings open the 3rd play of the drive, 1st and 10, with the same 2 TE unbalanced line, but with Murray in the backfield - and then motion Thielen in as well.

On the Vikings third play, Kevin Stefanski stays with the 2 TE unbalanced line, and then motions Adam Thielen inside as well - with Latavius Murray in the backfield. Miami has countered the unbalanced line this time by bring up both a linebacker (hard to see) and strong safety to the line of scrimmage. The corner on Thielen has come in some, and the single high safety is also cheated over Thielen, leaving Diggs with single off-coverage.

Cousins could have thrown a bubble-screen to Diggs - taking what the defense gave him - but went with the zone run call to Murray. This time going to the strong side.

Vikings OL + TEs + Thielen manage to create a small crease Murray is able to squeeze through for 6 yards

Ultimately the tackle was made by the outside corner after a six yard gain.

Fourth Play

Vikings show a 2 TE set, but this time a balanced line

On this play, the Vikings line up with a balanced line for the first time in the game, albeit a double tight-end set with a TE on either end. Miami shows a two-high safety look, with their cornerbacks playing off coverage. The Vikings go with another play-action pass - with a fake again to both Stefon Diggs on the jet sweep and Dalvin Cook up the middle. This does a great job of holding the linebackers, leaving Kyle Rudolph wide open on a crossing route. Cousins waited a bit longer and found Adam Thielen further down field after the corner was faked into a out and up route, leaving Thielen open to make the catch for what would have been a 16 yard gain. The play was nullified however by a penalty.

Play-action held Miami’s LBs in place leaving Kyle Rudolph wide open, but Cousins targeted Thielen further downfield instead after he broke open.

Fifth Play

Vikings show 3 WR set on 2nd and 9, and Miami counters with a 2 high safeties expecting a pass

With the last play nullified by penalty, this brought a 2nd and 9 at the Miami 42 yard line. Miami continues the trend in recent games here by going with a two high safety look, effectively doubling on Diggs and Thielen and forcing Cousins to look elsewhere. The Miami front four is also positioned for a pass rush, with the ends well outside and typical 3-tech position on the left.

But the Vikings and Kevin Stefanski opt for a run here, which Miami is in poor position to defend with two high safeties and the ends out wide. Riley Reiff and Tom Compton doubled the 3-tech initially, taking him out, before Compton moved to the 2nd level to take the linebacker out of the play as well. The Miami defensive end went wide around Kyle Rudolph, making it easy for him to take him out of the play as well. The result was the proverbial hole you could drive a truck through, and Dalvin Cook took full advantage for a 26 yard gain.

Miami is out of position expecting a pass, allowing a big run from Dalvin Cook.

Sixth Play

Vikings return to the unbalanced line, with 2 TEs on the right, and both WRs wide right.

Kevin Stefanski goes back to the unbalanced line on this 1st and 10 from the Miami 16, with Murray in the background and both WRs split right. Miami is expecting run here, with a single high safety, and linebackers focused on Murray. Rudolph is sent in motion across the line, shifting linebackers to a balanced alignment. The Vikings hand the ball off to Murray off the right side, which Miami plays relatively well for only a modest 3 yard gain.

Seventh Play

It may have been that Kevin Stefanski had called two plays in a row beginning the Vikings first trip in the red zone, but in any case the Vikings went hurry-up after Murray’s three-yard run, keeping the same personnel but in a different formation. They were quick up to the line, leaving the Miami defense in some confusion.

Kevin Stefanski goes hurry-up after Murray’s run, leaving Miami’s defense confused and unprepared

This is another element that Pat Shurmur used on occasion last season with the Vikings with some success. He didn’t often go hurry-up for an extended period of plays, but on occasion he would use a hurry-up / no huddle offense in hope of catching a defense off-guard and unable to substitute.

And this is what Stefanski did here. Using the same personnel as the last play, only with an unbalanced line on the right, and in bunch formation with both TEs standing. This left Miami scrambling to get into position and determine assignments.

The Vikings snapped the ball quickly and ran a play-action pass- which held the linebackers- while the Miami cornerback passed Diggs off to the safety, who was way out of position to make any play on Diggs’ corner route. The result was an easy touchdown to a wide open Stefon Diggs.

Vikings take advantage of an unprepared Miami defense for an easy touchdown

Subsequent First Quarter Drives

Kevin Stefanski, having established a healthy diet of unbalanced lines and double-TE sets for the Miami coaching staff to digest during the first drive, changed things up and went with mostly spread formations the second drive, mainly 3 WR sets.

One of the key plays of the drive was a pass to Tyler Conklin from the Dolphins 34 yard line. The Vikings started with 3 WR personnel but then motioned Dalvin Cook to the outside. Here is the formation on that play:

Stefanski changes things up on the Vikings 2nd drive, this time with a 4-wide spread formation with Tyler Conklin and Dalvin Cook outside the numbers.

The Dolphins lined up single high safety here, playing zone coverage, and blitzed a DB off the strong side. Cousins read the zone coverage and got the ball out quickly targeting Conklin on a go route in the soft spot of the zone coverage for a big gain.

Cousins hits Tyler Conklin for a big gain

The next play, 1st and 10 from the Dolphins 13 yard line, Stefanski switched it up again, and used fullback CJ Ham for the first time in the game, in what’s known as a 21 personnel group - 2 backs, 1 TE, 2 WRs.

The Vikings sent Adam Thielen in motion to the opposite side, causing Miami to shift their coverage assignments accordingly and move the CB that was on Thielen inside to cover the TE. The Dolphins had shown this earlier in the game when a receiver goes in motion.

The resulting play, a hand-off to Cook, was meant to go off-tackle behind CJ Ham, but when that hole closed, Cook bounced it outside and with the CB playing inside, it was a foot race to the boundary and end zone, which Cook usually wins - and did so again here.

Cook bounces outside and past the CB for the Vikings 2nd TD.

The following drive for the Vikings opened with another 3 WR set but with Latavius Murray in the backfield. The Dolphins were in single-high safety and all but that safety and the MLB on the line of scrimmage - press man coverage outside. Cousins appeared to recognize this and audible. The resulting play was a play-action to Murray and pass to Diggs one-on-one on the boundary. Diggs made an excellent back-shoulder catch against good coverage.

The next play was a bunch formation off the right tackle - same formation as the first Diggs TD pass - but this time a run to Murray for no gain.

Then back to the unbalanced line left, and another Murray run - this time for 5 yards.

Next play a 4-WR set and pass to Diggs for 7 yards.

Then another unbalanced line right, play-action to Cook, and pass to Thielen for 14 yards in man coverage.

Then 21 personnel with CJ Ham at FB and Murray at RB for a 4 yard run.

Then 21 personnel again and same formation as last play, only this time a deep shot to an open Kyle Rudolph near the end zone - the only thing preventing a TD was that the pass was short.

21 personnel again - and Miami with 2 high-safeties - back to the run with Murray who breaks outside and beats a LB and DB for a TD.

Kevin Stefanski Accordion Player

The point of going through these drives, play calls, and formations is to show that between a drive featuring unbalanced 2 TE sets, then another with spread formations, and then mixing it up and adding the 21 personnel, Stefanski is changing formations like an accordian player - first close in, then wide, then back again - mixing pass and run out of similar formations and personnel - and even sneaking a quick hurry-up/no-huddle play at a key moment for an easy touchdown.

It helped that the Dolphins’ front seven wasn’t very good, and Vikings’ receivers made some good contested catches, but let’s not leave out a different approach in play-calling by Kevin Stefanski.

Using the unbalanced double TE set means the opposing defense is obliged to position against the run on the unbalanced side, or face a mismatch.

Using the spread formations means the opposing defense must defend the pass, or face a mismatch.

So, if you want to go with two high safeties against a spread formation, that opens up an advantage in the run game. If you want to focus on shutting down the run against an unbalanced line, this opens up the play-action pass. And, if you want to play two-high safeties and focus on shutting down Diggs and Thielen, you open yourself up for this:

Miami DBs more focused on Diggs and Thielen on crossing routes - opening the Dolphins defense for the home run ball to Aldrick Robinson

Bottom Line

The Vikings offense was stuck in the doldrums. John DeFilippo wasn’t able to effectively counter defenses attempting to take away Diggs and Thielen and forcing the Vikings offense to beat them in other ways. Kevin Stefanski seems to have found those other ways, drawing perhaps from his experience last season with Pat Shurmur, and using his style of west-coast offense. Stefanski has made greater use of the unbalanced and double tight-end formations to go along with spread formations and more traditional 21 personnel - and mixing pass and run from each of these formations to keep the defense off-balance.

Stefanski will have tougher games ahead- against better defenses than Miami, and as opposing defenses have a little more to go on when it comes to game planning against him. But at the end of the day, he has the talent at the skill positions to run just about anything, and he may have more tricks to unveil over the course of time as well.

John DeFilippo struggled to utilize the talent at his disposal- particularly in the backfield- in his time as offensive coordinator for the Vikings. The good news is that Kevin Stefanski, having put together an effective game plan and showing more than beginner’s luck at calling plays, is auspicious for the Vikings offense going forward.

Poll

Kevin Stefanski is the interim offensive coordinator. Should the ‘interim’ tag be removed?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Yes - he’s been with the Vikings a long time and has earned the job.
    (696 votes)
  • 29%
    No - he needs to show more and the Vikings can also shop the market at the end of the season
    (286 votes)
982 votes total Vote Now