Ever since the Vikings hired former Eagles QB Coach John DeFilippo as their new offensive coordinator, there has been speculation as to what changes he will bring to the Vikings offense, and how he will work with Kirk Cousins to get the most from him and the Vikings offense.
Not surprisingly, DeFilippo has not offered up his playbook for public scrutiny, nor has he delved into what his program is for Kirk Cousins during the off/pre-season to help him improve his game. Nevertheless, there are some insights into his approach that can be gleaned from looking at his stint in Cleveland, and in Philadelphia, that may offer a glimpse into what he has planned for the Vikings offense this season.
It may not be all that much different from the offense last season under Pat Shurmur. Let’s take a look.
It’s an odd coincidence that both John DeFilippo and Pat Shurmur came to Philadelphia after a failed stint in Cleveland, and then to Minnesota. Shurmur was under Chip Kelly, and DeFilippo under Doug Pederson at Philadelphia, but both seem to share some similar concepts in their offensive schemes.
John DeFilippo has been described as bringing a modernized west coast offense, with some spread-offense concepts, pre-snap movement, and play-action from Philadelphia. Pat Shurmur brought those same things from Philadelphia too. So, from a base scheme perspective, there may not be much change- except players having to learn some new terminology. And like Shurmur, DeFilippo likes to tailor his offense to the strengths of his quarterback.
I did a piece about a month ago on getting the most from Kirk Cousins and what he does best, and a lot of that gels with what the Vikings did last year with Pat Shurmur. Here are a few key aspects from the Vikings offense that may continue with John DeFilippo and Kirk Cousins:
Play-Action Passing. The Vikings were 2nd highest in the league last year in percentage of play-action passes, and it’s a good bet that continues under DeFilippo. Kirk Cousins is very good at selling the play-action pass, and his passer rating improved dramatically when using play-action- going from 87.4 without it to 118.7 with it. His yards per attempt also increased from 7.1 to 9.4 with play-action. Last year with the Eagles, Carson Wentz used play-action 4th most in the league. This strongly suggests the Vikings will use play-action about the same as last year - which is to say a high percentage.
Commitment to the Run. The Vikings passed on 51.3% of offensive plays last year, maintaining a good balance between run and pass - actually they were 2nd in the league in rush attempts. With Dalvin Cook returning, a need to run effectively to make play-action effective too, and a defense that keeps them in games, I would expect DeFilippo to maintain a similar run-pass balance. He reiterated that commitment as OC in Cleveland, although game situations often dictated differently, and at Philadelphia last year they were 6th in rush attempts.
It’s also worth mentioning that in his three years as a starter, Kirk Cousins winning percentage is dramatically different when attempting more than 30 passes in a game. When attempting 30 or fewer passes, his winning percentage is .846 over the past three seasons. When attempting 31 or more passes, it drops to .363. It’s this latter winning percentage that strongly suggests avoiding Cousins getting up there in the pitch count.
I suspect the same may be generally true for most quarterbacks, in part because more pass attempts is often associated with playing from behind, but with Cousins the difference is fairly dramatic. Aaron Rodgers, by comparison, in his last three years excluding the games he played last season, had a .785 winning percentage with 30 or under pass attempts, and a .617 winning percentage with more than 30 pass attempts. Matt Ryan was .923 when attempting 30 or fewer passes, and .485 when attempting more than 30.
In Cousins’ case, it’s also worth mentioning that only 3 of his 36 interceptions (8.3%) in his three seasons as a starter at Washington occurred in games with 30 or fewer pass attempts - which represented 27.6% of his games during that stretch. Moreover, there was only one game in which he lost a fumble when attempting 30 or fewer passes (he lost 2 that game). He’s had 11 lost fumbles over the past 3 seasons.
All that suggests that DeFilippo will maintain the Vikings commitment to the run - something that Mike Zimmer endorses as well.
Zone Blocking. The Vikings moved to more zone blocking last year under Pat Shurmur, and John DeFilippo has also used primarily a zone blocking scheme when he was OC with the Browns. The Eagles used it too. With Dalvin Cook an excellent zone runner, expect more zone blocking next season too. Moreover, the type of offensive linemen taken in the draft all are better suited to zone blocking, and have experience working in a zone blocking scheme.
Deep Passing. Last season Case Keenum went deep (20+ yards downfield) on 12.5% of his pass attempts, which was 9th highest in the league among QBs who took at least 50% of their team’s snaps according to PFF. This despite Keenum not really having much of a reputation as a deep passer in the NFL prior to joining the Vikings- and a suspect offensive line when it comes to pass protection.
Kirk Cousins does have a reputation as a deep ball passer, and last season Carson Wentz went deep on 14.8% of his pass attempts - 4th highest in the league according to PFF using the same parameters. That suggests that DeFilippo will if anything increase the deep shots down the field - although a certain amount of that comes down to quarterback discretion and who’s open.
Pre-Snap Movement. While this is pretty common league-wide, both Shurmur and DeFilippo have incorporated use of pre-snap movement in their play design to help the quarterback in his reads, and to set-up favorable match-ups.
What Might Be Different?
While all of the above suggest there may be a lot of continuity in the Vikings offense from last season, there will likely be some changes, if not wholesale ones. But based on some of the things DeFilippo has done in the past, and some moves since joining the Vikings, here are a couple changes we may see this season.
More Tight End Stuff. While certainly not a dramatic departure from Shurmur’s scheme, DeFilippo likes to use what’s known as an F tight-end, who can line up anywhere in the backfield, in-line, slot, or out wide. Why Kyle Rudolph could potentially play this role in two TE sets with David Morgan in-line, it would seem Tyler Conklin was drafted for this spot. Conklin is the most athletic TE on the roster, and was known for his deep routes in college. The idea of moving the F tight-end around is to create match-up advantages of one kind or another - whether against a slower LB, a smaller DB, or a blocking advantage. Shurmur had guys in this type of role last year, but not always a tight end.
It’s also questionable if Conklin will actually play this role much for the Vikings this season- he’s missed a lot of OTAs with an undisclosed injury, and as a rookie you never know how he’ll adapt to the NFL early on. Another guy that could potentially be in this role is Laquon Treadwell, as a bigger receiver who can also block. I suspect having him in the huddle will simple draw another DB for the defense, which may not be the case with a regular tight-end, but it could still work out either way.
The other thing that suggests more tight-end use is that the Eagles used tight-ends a lot last year, and Kirk Cousins likes throwing to his tight-ends, having targeted Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed collectively about 250 times over the past two years. Similarly, the Eagles have targeted their TEs - Ertz, Burton and Celek - about as much the past two years. That works out to about 2 more targets a game than what the Vikings did last year. Of course that will depend on the Vikings TE depth- Rudolph can’t do it alone.
Route Combinations. While there is likely to be significant continuity here as well, I would expect more emphasis on concepts Kirk Cousins likes - at least a few of which DeFilippo has used while OC in Cleveland. Here are some examples:
Above we start with a designed roll-out and Josh McCown targeting a receiver deep on the opposite side of the field. Following that, there are several plays with 3 WRs spread out on (usually) the wide side of the field, and one WR opposite (3x1 WR). This is a spread offense concept DeFilippo used to get receivers in space, and was able to generate some big plays with lesser talent - and often less that stellar execution as you can see.
Below you can see Kirk Cousins running these same concepts in Washington, starting with the rollout and throw across the field, to the variations on the 3x1 WR spread formation.
It would seem Cousins likes operating out of those 3x1 WR sets, as he had a good deal of success with route combinations out of that formation. It’s worth mentioning that the Vikings have been working with Dalvin Cook lining up outside in OTAs, so don’t be surprised to see him out there as one of the receivers in this formation - which could create some difficult match-ups out there.
From what is out there on DeFilippo, it looks like there should be a lot of continuity from last season and the offense under Pat Shurmur. They both share similar offensive schemes - modern west coast offenses with plenty of play-action and spread concepts. This is an excellent fit for the Vikings skill position players, although it would be nice to see another pass-catching tight-end step up- i.e. Tyler Conklin - to fill out the TE roster.
And with Kirk Cousins at QB, if anything I would expect DeFilippo to incorporate more deep passes into the playbook and route combinations to give Cousins more opportunities to do what he does best- throw the deep ball.
Getting receivers like Diggs, Thielen and Rudolph in space will make it difficult for any secondary to stop them, while Dalvin Cook in the backfield will be a constant threat defenses will have to account for - and will help them to honor the play-action fake.
What remains to be seen is how DeFilippo will call a game, how he responds to various defensive schemes and adjustments, how aggressive he will be, and how well he and Kevin Stefanski can coach Kirk Cousins into playing his best game.
It seems like a good fit in many ways. We’ll see how it plays out on the field beginning in about three months.