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The Vikings’ Kubiak Offense

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A long look at Gary Kubiak’s history and how it could translate to this year’s Vikings’ offense

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Minnesota Vikings v Denver Broncos Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Back on Wednesday, January 9th, the Vikings promoted Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator. That same day, it was reported that Gary Kubiak would return to coaching as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. Those reports turned out to be pre-mature, and two days later - Friday - it was reported that there were some disagreements in Denver and Kubiak would not be the offensive coordinator. The Vikings immediately reached out to Kubiak, set-up a meeting for Monday morning, and hired him that day.

The timing of those events may lead some to wonder who the Vikings’ offensive coordinator would be today if Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman had known Gary Kubiak would be available a few days earlier.

Be that as it may, the Vikings wasted no time hiring Kubiak in the official capacity of Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor, and hiring all his long time assistant coaches as well - his son Klint Kubiak as QB coach, Brian Pariani as TE coach, and finally Rick Dennison as offensive line coach and Run Game Coordinator.

Embracing the Kubiak Scheme

Obviously in employing Kubiak and Company, the Vikings are also employing Kubiak’s offensive scheme. Why else would they hire the master and practitioners of Kubiak’s scheme if not to introduce, install, teach and practice it? It may be that 36 year-old Kevin Stefanski is the offensive coordinator, but bringing on Gary Kubiak, who’s won four Super Bowls as a coach - along with his staff - sends a pretty clear message: the Vikings will be running Kubiak’s offense.

It may be that Kevin Stefanski is offensive coordinator in a similar way George Edwards is defensive coordinator, with Stefanski taking “advice” from Kubiak as Edwards does from Zimmer.

Early reports from Mike Zimmer indicate he is very happy with how things are going with his offensive coaching staff. Stefanski runs the room, while Kubiak dominates the discussion with his experience as they put together the Vikings playbook. Zimmer said that Kubiak “has no ego” while Stefanski seems happy to learn from his experience.

From recent press conferences, it appears that Gary Kubiak will be heavily involved in weekly game-planning and be in the booth during games, while Stefanski will call plays from the sideline - although play calling is also expected to be a collaborative thing with Kubiak and also Rick Dennison on running plays.

Kubiak and Company will also be involved in evaluating players and potential acquisitions- Kubiak is familiar with this draft class from his work in personnel with Denver.

I suspect that Stefanski will be something of a liaison between Kubiak & Company and the players early on, working to adapt scheme to player strengths, coordinating scheme implementation into the off-season program, while also communicating finer points of player strengths in the past with Kubiak & Co. Stefanski may eventually be overshadowed in all this, but we’ll just have to see how it plays out. It seems to work on the defensive side with Edwards and Zimmer, so perhaps it will work with Stefanski and Kubiak.

Some Kubiak History

Gary Kubiak is a former backup QB (behind John Elway) with the Broncos who’s coached four teams that won the Super Bowl.

In 1994 he began his NFL coaching career as QB coach to Steve Young with the 49ers, and they won the Super Bowl that year. Steve Young was both the NFL and Super Bowl MVP.

He moved with Mike Shanahan, who had been the 49ers offensive coordinator, to Denver as Shanahan took the head coaching job and Kubiak was promoted to be his offensive coordinator. They inherited a good passing game with John Elway at QB, but the run game was poor with a 3.4 yard average. Kubiak and Shanahan were able to turn that around with the addition of Terrell Davis in 1995 (improving to #2 in both yards/rush (4.5) and total rushing yards), and the following year went 13-3 as the defense improved. In 1997 they won the Super Bowl with the #1 ranked offense in both points and yards. They won it again in 1998 with the 2nd ranked offense in points, and 3rd in yards.

But then Elway retired and the offense took a big step back in 1999, only to return to form the next year under Kubiak - with Brian Griese and Gus Frerotte at QB. The Broncos’ offense was ranked #2 in both yards and points that year (#3 in both pass and rush yards) with Mike Anderson at RB. 2001 was a down year for the offense, but Kubiak’s remaining years in Denver as OC saw the Broncos with a top 10 offense every year.

In 2006 Kubiak became the head coach of the Texans, who went 2-14 the year before under Dom Capers as head coach. Vic Fangio, incidentally, had been defensive coordinator - Kubiak didn’t keep him. The Texans had David Carr at QB, and not much to else to mitigate that, so it was pretty ugly for a couple years. But Kubiak was able to get back to 8-8 in 2007 from 2-14 the year before he was hired. The following year the Texans offense was #3 in yards with Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels at QB, Andre Johnson at WR, and Steve Slaton at RB. The offense remained in the top 10 the next couple years, but the defense was awful.

In 2011 they brought in Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator (who Shanahan had replaced as head coach when Kubiak went to Denver in 1995), and then things got rolling for the Texans who had a top 10 offense and top 5 defense. Rick Dennison was the offensive coordinator beginning in 2010. They continued like that for a couple years, with double-digit wins, but couldn’t get past the divisional round in the playoffs. Then in 2013 everything came crashing down as Matt Schaub was injured and Kubiak elevated a young Case Keenum to replace him. Kubiak was later fired as Keenum went 0-8 that year - part of a 14 game losing streak the Texans had after winning their first two games.

The Ravens hired Kubiak to be their offensive coordinator in 2014, hoping to turn around an offense that was ranked 25th in points and 29th in yards, including 30th in rushing yards and 32nd in rushing yards/attempt, with a 3.1 yard average.

He did.

The Ravens improved that year to 8th in the league in points and 12th in yards, including 8th in rushing yards and 7th in yards per attempt, with a 4.5 yard average. Joe Flacco went from a 73 passer rating to 91, and a 5’8”, 195 lbs. back named Justin Forsett, who hadn’t done much before or since, ran for 1,266 yards and a 5.4 yard average.

That turnaround earned Kubiak another head coaching job - once again back at Denver. There he took the remains of Peyton Manning, along with Brock Osweiler, and a crushing defense to another Super Bowl victory in 2015. The offense wasn’t great to be honest - Manning had a worse year than Christian Ponder’s average - and Osweiler wasn’t much better. But on the strength of their defense they were able to go 12-4 and get past both the Steelers and Patriots en route to a victory over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

But what wasn’t a great offense in 2015 got worse in 2016 after Manning retired and Trevor Siemian took over at QB. During the season Kubiak suffered some health issues - including what was diagnosed as a complex migraine, missing a week due to doctor imposed rest, before stepping down at the end of the season for health reasons. He stayed on with the Broncos the past two years in their personnel department, evaluating college players for the draft and other personnel duties.

Repeated Success

The recurring theme in Kubiak’s career has been his ability to manufacture top 10 offensives with decent, but not great quarterbacks: Matt Schaub in Houston, Joe Flacco in Baltimore, the Remains of Peyton Manning in Denver. And with top QBs like Young in 1994 and Elway in the late 90s, among the very best in the league.

He’s also been able to get top production out of a number of backs, from Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson in Denver, to Steve Slaton and Arian Foster in Houston, to Justin Forsett in Baltimore and to a lesser extent CJ Anderson in Denver.

All tolled, Kubiak has had a top ten (or better) offensive in points and/or yards in 16 of his 22 years as either offensive coordinator or head coach. Take away his early years in Houston, when he had next to nothing for talent, and his record looks even better.

So how did he do it? Let’s take a look.

The Kubiak Scheme

There are a few key elements in Kubiak’s brand of west coast offense. They include:

  • Greater use of zone blocking
  • Outside stretch run
  • Misdirection plays and comprehensive play-action fakes - QB, RB and OL sell it
  • Multiple formations - compressed, wide, 2 TEs, 2 RBs, 3/4/5 wide, bunch
  • Multiple position players - FB/TE, RB/WR, TE/WR, Outside/Slot WR
  • QB movement - bootlegs/waggles
  • Crossing routes

Listening to the Vikings coaches, you hear a lot about having ‘balance’ on offense, ‘marrying the run and the pass’, complimentary football, and other phrases like that. The Kubiak scheme embraces those concepts by operating run or pass plays from the same formation, and using other disguises like play-action and misdirection to keep a defense honest.

Kubiak also relies heavily on zone-blocking on running plays. Here is a good diagram of how zone blocking works:

The Outside Stretch Run

The outside stretch or wide run has been a staple of the Kubiak running game going back to the late 90s. It is a zone-blocking play that goes back to Alex Gibbs, the godfather of the modern zone blocking scheme, explained in more detail in that link.

The essence of the play is a zone block, where the offensive line moves laterally, stretching out the defense and hopefully creating a seam for the running back to exploit. The back in turn reads his keys from the outside in, and quickly commits to his read- whether outside or a cut-back inside. Here is another look into this key concept in Kubiak’s offense.

The difficulty for the defense is to maintain disciplined, get off blocks quickly, fit and tackle before the running back sneaks through to the next level. When reasonably well executed, the play is a demanding one for a defense to stop, as everyone needs to be on their game or a seam will be created for the running back to exploit.

Below, the 2015 Broncos under Kubiak ran this play against the Vikings defense. The Vikings looked in decent position to stop the play initially, but a small seam near the boundary and a missed tackle led to a 72-yard TD run by Ronnie Hillman.

Here is another version of the outside stretch run from Kubiak’s 2011 Texans featuring Arian Foster against the Colts:

In this play, the OL shifts left laterally in a zone block while the FB blocks to the backside. And thanks to the DE going up-field and taking himself out of the play, there is a big hole for Foster to exploit.

Another example of this outside stretch run is from the 2014 Ravens, when Kubiak was offensive coordinator. Here Justin Forsett is the ball carrier with the fullback as lead blocker. Just a little seam and some good second-level blocking leads to a big gain.

Below is another 2014 Ravens example. Here Kubiak has 8 guys on the line of scrimmage - including the fullback and tight-ends, and only one receiver out wide. This is an example of a compressed formation - there are other versions too. You can see once again the zone blocking lateral movement as the entire line moves left and the defense flows that way as well. Here Forsett sees the outside being jammed and quickly cuts back inside. Once again with the aid of a nice second-level block from the TE, Forsett manages another big gain. There is some deception here as the Ravens show a very unbalanced line to the right, which is also the wide side of the field. Both would indicate a more likely run right, but the Ravens go the other way. The positioning of the linebackers and defensive tackles (perhaps looking for an outside run) leaves the middle relatively unprotected, and Forsett is able to exploit this.

You’ll notice in all these examples the offensive linemen are not blowing up their opponents. They simply occupy them long enough for the back to sneak through a seam.

Adding Misdirection to Keep Defenses Guessing

As you can see, this type of run takes good execution and team defense to defeat.

But there are a couple ways defenses can defeat this type of running play. The first is penetration, where a DL or LB gets through the block and stops the back before he gets started. A well-timed swim move or quick burst across the OL’s face can put a DL in good position to make the play. There’s not much schematically that can be done to prevent this. You simply need the play to be adequately blocked for it to work. Just getting enough of a defender to force a missed tackle is enough.

The second way is backside pursuit from a DE or LB going down the line to tackle the runner before he gets through the first level. Schematically there is a way to counter this to keep the defense honest - through misdirection.

If a defense really has to work to defeat the stretch run and zone blocking, they’ll be conscious of it every time Kubiak’s offense lines up in what may be that type of play. And that leaves them open for a misdirection play.

Here are a couple of examples from Kubiak’s offense that effectively use misdirection for good effect.

Below the Ravens use play-action and basically zone run blocking - or so it would appear - to get the Steelers defense flowing right. Joe Flacco then boots left and connects with one of the crossing routes for a touchdown. Tough play to defend.

Here is essentially the same play against the Patriots, only this time instead of crossing routes, the receiver runs a whip-route - first going inside only to reverse back outside to get separation from the defender.

Once again, the apparent zone-run gets the defense flowing one way, creating space the other way for the QB boot and receiver to exploit.

Here are a couple other examples of Kubiak using misdirection to good effect.

Below the Ravens show a run right, with the fullback shifting right. After the snap, Flacco goes play-action while the fullback sneaks out left to receive the toss from Flacco for a nice gain.

Here is another Kubiak misdirection play, also with a compressed formation:

The little inside fake to the fullback is just enough to get the Browns’ outside defenders - who were otherwise well positioned for this play - to bite inside and allow Forsett to beat them outside on the quick pitch.

Another misdirection off of the play-action fake zone run concept shown here with the 2015 Broncos against the Colts:

The Colts were all over that fake zone run, allowing the elderly Manning to boot left and lob it to the wide-open TE on a post-corner route.

Kubiak Has Turned Nobodies into Thousand-Yard Rushers - What Happens When He Has A Real Talent to Work With?

When Gary Kubiak came to Denver in 1995, they drafted a running back in the 6th round. His name was Terrell Davis. He rushed for over 1,100 yards as a rookie. Then over 1,500 yards. Then over 1,700 yards, and finally over 2,000 yards in 1998 before injuries took their toll. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2017 based entirely on those Kubiak years.

In 2000, the Broncos drafted another RB in the sixth round - Mike Anderson. He rushed for nearly 1,500 yards as a rookie. In 2008, now head coach of the Texans, Kubiak drafted a guy named Steve Slaton in the 3rd round. He ran for nearly 1,300 yards as a rookie.

Then in 2009 he picked up a UDFA named Arian Foster. The following year he rushed for over 1,600 yards and was a first-team All-Pro. He rushed for over 1,200 and 1,400 yards the next two seasons before suffering a back injury prior to the 2013 season - Kubiak’s last with the Texans.

In 2014, Kubiak became offensive coordinator with the Ravens. Ray Rice had been suspended, and a 7th round pick in the 2008 draft who’d bounced around the league for six years took over at RB, despite averaging only 338 rushing yards/year. Under Kubiak he ran for over 1,200 (5.4 yards/attempt) and made the Pro Bowl.

In 2015, now head coach of the Broncos, Kubiak took a 3rd round pick in the 2012 draft who hadn’t amount to much - Ronnie Hillman - and a UDFA the Broncos acquired in 2013 - CJ Anderson - and made them into a 1,600 yard rushing tandem.

All of those backs proved they could make it in the NFL under Kubiak’s scheme - and perform at a high level. Those high-level results were few and far between for those backs outside of Kubiak’s scheme.

Enter Dalvin Cook.

Cook was the top RB prospect in the 2017 draft according to Pro Football Focus and SI, having rushed for 4,464 yards in three seasons at Florida State and a 6.5 yard per attempt average. PFF said he was also the best offensive player in the draft. Period. He’s had one of the top elusive ratings in both college and his limited time in the NFL.

Cook is well-versed in Kubiak’s zone scheme, having played and thrived in that time of scheme at Florida State. If he stays healthy, Cook could become the best yet to thrive in Kubiak’s scheme. It’s all there and ripe for the picking.

Looking back at all the examples above, one could easily imagine Dalvin Cook doing as well or better in these plays.

What About the Passing Game?

While the heart of Kubiak’s offense is this ‘marriage’ of run and pass as illustrated above, there are other elements of Kubiak’s passing game. Here are a few of them:

  • Preference for play-action passing from under-center, although he will use shotgun as well in obvious passing situations
  • Kubiak likes to use crossing routes for a variety of reasons
  • He’ll take deep shots downfield. It’s often nothing all that fancy, but the rest of his offense basically sets up the occasional deep ball - although it could just as easily be a TE or RB as a WR on the deep route

Here is an example of a crossing route concept against the Patriots in the 2014 playoffs:

Three of the four receivers on this play are running crossing routes, with the upper WR on a post route. Two cross down the field and one up, which creates confusion among the linebackers in coverage, leading to an open receiver Flacco hits for a nice gain.

Here is another use of a crossing route against the blitz:

You’ll notice this is very similar to the misdirection TD play above against the Steelers - in the same game.

Here is another effective use of play-action that, along with all these GIFs, shows how much it sucks to be a linebacker - particularly an inside linebacker - against a Kubiak offense:

Here #52 goes for the play-action, leaving an opening for the receiver to exploit and turn into a nice gain. Meanwhile #50 slips and stumbles himself out of the play. Effective play-action.

Here is another example of a crossing route paired with play-action and misdirection:

Not only did the inside linebackers bite at the play-action, so did both safeties. And that’s because it wasn’t just a half-ass fake hand-off - the whole offensive line looked to be zone blocking for a run right.

But while these type of crossing route patterns are far-and-away the staple of Kubiak’s passing offense - just about every passing play includes one or more crossing routes - he does take deep shots down the field on occasion as well. Most of the time they seem to be pre-determined before the play begins - perhaps just based on a match-up they like. Here is an example with the 2014 Ravens against the Browns:

The coverage wasn’t bad, the receiver just made a play. But most of the time when a Kubiak offense took a deep shot, it was man-to-man coverage outside on a go route. Throwing these routes once a quarter keeps them in mind for CBs and safeties - and helps to keep them honest with other plays.

Here is another example off the play-action fake / bootleg:

Flacco had plenty of time, and even though Steve Smith didn’t run a great double-move route, he managed to get by the CB late for the touchdown.

But to be clear, Kubiak’s offense isn’t predicated on throwing the deep ball. They’ll do it on occasion, in part to keep DBs honest, but it’s not a focus.

Kubiak’s Offense and Vikings Personnel

As I mentioned earlier, Dalvin Cook seems about as perfect a featured back in Gary Kubiak’s offense as any he’s had in the past. And there have been several that put up big numbers on the ground. Cook could eclipse them all.

Kirk Cousins at QB is also a good fit. He’s good at running play-action, and could benefit from simpler reads and progressions - and the benefits of a stronger running game when it comes to the pass and pressure. In general, Kubiak’s offenses in the past, going back to Denver in the late 90s, have done well without top QB performances. Comparing Cousins to Manning in 2015, Joe Flacco in 2014, Matt Schaub in Houston, even John Elway in the late 90s, he compares favorably to most if not all of those QBs from a passer rating standpoint. Matt Schaub actually had the highest passer ratings of the bunch, and threw for over 4,000 yards three times under Kubiak, including a league-leading 4,770 yards in 2009. But Cousins’ passer rating last year (99.7), was better than any of the above QBs in those years.

In terms of wide receivers, both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen look to be very good fits with Kubiak’s scheme. Both are excellent route runners that can work the crossing and other intermediate routes well - those that form the core of Kubiak’s passing offense. Both have high passer ratings when targeted on those routes for the past couple years.

At the tight-end and fullback position, CJ Ham should fit in nicely with Kubiak’s scheme. What remains to be seen is how Kyle Rudolph will fare, and whether Tyler Conklin and David Morgan are able to improve over last year’s performance. Rudolph is not as dynamic a pass catcher as you’d like in Kubiak’s system, nor has he been a particularly good blocker. Both Morgan and Conklin did better in pass protection than Rudolph, but all three did not fare well last season in run blocking - Morgan was down significantly and has been much better in years past. Overall, this group is okay for Kubiak’s scheme, but could be better.

This leaves of course the weak spot on the Vikings offense: the offensive line.

By all accounts, Kubiak runs a pretty heavy outside zone run blocking scheme. Getting guys that can operate well in that run scheme - while still being able to pass block well - should be the #1 priority for the Vikings this off-season. So far they haven’t done much. In previous years the Vikings have run more inside zone - in 2017 the Vikings ran more inside zone runs than any other team in the league. Outside zone may not be as demanding on the interior OL as inside zone, but it is more demanding on the OTs to make rounding the corner a possibility for the running back. That’s not to say that if an interior lineman gets beat that can’t kill the play, but if they can at least keep their guy occupied for a few seconds that should be enough most of the time.

In any case, it puts a bit more pressure on Brian O’Neill and Riley Reiff - or whoever plays tackle - to be effective as a run blocker or an outside zone play isn’t likely to work. There is still the possibility of a cut-back, but if the Vikings interior line isn’t any better than last year in run-blocking, that’s not gonna lead to much of a gain.

From a pass-blocking standpoint, Kubiak’s offense is not particularly demanding on an offensive line. Particularly if they have some success with the running game. But Kubiak’s passing game doesn’t call for a lot of 7-step drop backs and deep patterns that take time to develop. The passing game allows a QB to get the ball out quickly most of the time, and also can afford him some extra time on bootlegs.

The key for the offensive line will be to get the zone-blocking technique and teamwork down well so defenses have that in mind every play. That prevents them from pinning their ears back on possible passing downs and makes them honor the run more often.

That in turn makes pass-protection just a little easier, as does a relatively fast-developing passing game.

Overall, the Vikings’ version of a Kubiak offense may look more like the 2014 Ravens than the 2015-16 Broncos, or the Texans or the late 90s Broncos, based on personnel. The ‘14 Ravens had Joe Flacco at QB, Justin Forsett at RB, Steve and Torrey Smith at WR, and Owen Daniels at TE.

I like to think the Vikings compare favorably at the skill positions to the ‘14 Ravens, who ranked 8th in points and 12th in yards.

Their starting OL was LT Eugene Monroe, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Jeremy Zuttah, RG Mashal Yanda, and RT Rick Wagner. Yanda was an All-Pro and perennial stud. Zuttah had a break-out year in 2013 and did well in ‘14 as well. Rick Wagner was in his first year as a starter and had the best year of his career in Kubiak’s system. Kelechi Osemele was okay his first two years prior to ‘14, but really had a breakout year in 2014, going from average to good. Eugene Monroe had an off-year and was average that year. Overall, the Ravens OL was ranked 3rd overall by PFF, including 7th in pass protection, 4th in run blocking, and 14th in penalties. They were ranked 17th the year before. Here is what PFF had to say about the Ravens OL that year:

Breakdown: The impact of Gary Kubiak was felt almost instantly, but especially at the guard’s spot where both Yanda and Kelechi Osemele had tremendous years. The development of Ricky Wagner was another reason to celebrate, though the investment in Eugene Monroe didn’t quite pan out.

While Yanda had always been a stud, the others seemed to improve under Kubiak. There is some precedent as well for offensive linemen to thrive in Kubiak’s scheme. Kubiak developed guys like Eric Winston, Duane Brown, Chris Myers and Mike Brisiel into very good linemen in Houston. Matt Paradis had his break-out 2nd year under Kubiak, and had the best year of his career under him in 2016.

I suspect that after all these years, Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison have a pretty good idea of what skill set works in their system. Whether they can find those guys on the roster or elsewhere remains to be seen. But they’ve had some success, even early-on, getting good production from offensive linemen. Given that the Vikings offensive line is in flux, and we don’t know who they may draft or yet pick up in free agency, so we’ll have to wait to see how that pans out before making a good assessment.

But overall, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in terms of how well Kubiak’s system fits with the Vikings personnel.

Poll

The Vikings offense ranked 19th in points and 20th in yards last season. Where do you think they’ll rank this coming season?

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