Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to get excited about the Minnesota Vikings offense.
It’s gonna be good this year.
Understanding Why 2018 Was a Dud
The first thing to understand about why the Vikings offense, with largely the same players, or same caliber players, as the past two seasons, regressed so much last season after a top ten performance in 2017.
The answer is a simple. The Vikings lost two important coaches from 2017 - offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and offensive line coach Tony Sparano - and their replacements were not up to the task. Shurmur was an experienced offensive coordinator with several years experience calling plays and designing game plans, and was named the 2017 assistant coach of the year for his work with the Vikings offense.
He was replaced by John DeFilippo, who had just one year of experience as an OC in Cleveland a couple years prior, and when former head coach and offensive coordinator, offensive line and run coordinator Tony Sparano died right before training camp, he was left with no staff experienced at calling games or designing game plans to help him.
Not only was Sparano’s experience as a head coach and offensive coordinator lost, but so too was his coaching ability with the weak link in the Vikings offense - the offensive line. That left the mediocre offensive line with sub-par coaching entering training camp, limiting it’s development.
And so the Vikings were left with an inside zone run scheme with poor interior linemen and an offensive coordinator who had more background in passing and quarterbacks - but not so much with offensive linemen or designing running plays.
Given that, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that DeFilippo changed the Vikings defense from 28th in league rankings for passing play percentage in 2017, to 1st when he was fired after 13 games.
DeFilippo reverted to having Cousins stand in shotgun formations roughly 76% of passing plays, which made it easier for pass rushers to identify the play and get to Cousins - and more difficult and taxing for the Vikings mediocre offensive line.
Those decisions also neglected the fact that the Vikings hadn’t lost a game in two years when they’ve rushed for over 100 yards, and only one game in the prior three seasons. They also neglected the fact that Cousins was the highest rated play-action passer in the league since he became a starter.
DeFilippo had talked about tailoring the offense to the Vikings players prior to the regular season, but failed to do so once it began.
The lesson here is that offensive coordinators matter, and having a competent coordinator and staff to design, implement, coach and call a well-tailored scheme is as important as having quality players in building a top offense.
2019 Offensive Coaching Changes
With the lesson of the 2018 season in mind, the coaching changes the Vikings made early this off-season take on more importance. The most important was not naming Kevin Stefanski offensive coordinator, but hiring Gary Kubiak and his staff to implement Kubiak’s scheme.
Gary Kubiak has been an offensive coordinator since the mid-90s, and the key members of his staff - offensive line coach/run coordinator Rick Dennison and tight end coach Brian Pariani - have many years of experience in those jobs and in coaching Kubiak’s scheme.
And with that the Vikings not only eliminated the coaching deficit they had last year, they may have improved it overall compared to 2017.
A Well-Tailored Offensive Scheme
Perhaps more important than a deep bench of experienced coaches to help Kevin Stefanski, who knows the players well having been a position coach for the past several years, is Kubiak’s scheme, and how well tailored it is for the Vikings players.
I did a piece earlier this year on Kubiak’s offense, and some of the key elements of it, and I’ll go through that again now, matching those elements with Vikings personnel.
OUTSIDE ZONE RUN SCHEME
The base run play in Kubiak’s scheme is the outside zone run, where the offensive line attempts to stretch the defense out to the boundary, and create a seam for the running back to exploit by either pushing defenders out wide, or pinning them inside.
Having a back that has the vision to see a seam develop, the quickness and speed to sneak through it, and the elusiveness in the open field to exploit it is ideal.
And this is the skill set Dalvin Cook has been using to do just that in his days at Florida State, and to a lesser extent so far with the Vikings.
And if you were to draw up a prototypical running back for the outside zone run, it would look just like Dalvin Cook. Indeed, coming out Dalvin Cook was projected a best fit for an outside zone scheme by PFF, and really most any scheme by other analysts. I did a piece on Cook after he was drafted, and his limited rushing attempts in the NFL have confirmed what his college tape and stats say about him.
Last year Dalvin Cook’s PFF Elusive Rating, which combines missed tackles per attempt with yards after contact per attempt, was 4th best among RBs with at least 100 attempts. His 81.9 rating was over twice that of Ezekiel Elliot and Joe Mixon, and nearly so for Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara. It was also notably better than Saquon Barkley and Melvin Gordon. Only Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry and Kareem Hunt had higher ratings than Cook.
The other aspect of the outside zone run scheme is how well suited the Vikings offensive line is to it.
First off, the Vikings top draft pick, starting center Garrett Bradbury, has been called the best zone blocking lineman in the draft, and one of the best center prospects in the past several drafts. He played in an outside zone scheme in college with NC State, so he’s well versed in the scheme and techniques, and has demonstrated them extremely well and against top competition. So, while he’s a rookie, he’s a perfect fit for Kubiak’s running scheme, and Kubiak himself had his eye on Bradbury for the past year for that reason.
The tackles are also a key part of the outside zone run because the running back typically keys off the tackle’s block to make his cut either inside or outside him. I put together a tape of Riley Reiff last season that gives you an idea how he could fare on outside zone runs this season:
It’s not a perfect comparison, and I think he could improve with some outside zone specific coaching - which he’s getting - to work on that technique. But overall he looks like he could hold up well in this scheme.
Brian O’Neill was not as strong generally in run blocking last season, and also there weren’t a whole lot of outside runs his way last season, so he’s a bit harder to judge based on what he did last season. He is, however, ideal from the standpoint of having the athletic ability to make the blocks required of him. I did a piece recently on the Vikings offensive linemen, and O’Neill ranks pretty high in terms of short area quickness and lateral move ability, arm length and intelligence, so he has a very good skill set to work with as an outside zone blocker. He also could benefit a lot from technique coaching. O’Neill is a guy that’s usually in the right place to make the block - he’s seldom beaten from the get-go- but needs more finishing technique, whether that’s on the line or out in space in the second level.
That leaves the guards. I did a piece on Josh Kline after he was acquired, and he looks to be fairly solid as a run blocker. I don’t see him being the weak link. He’s not an absolute stud every play, but he wins his share, battles tough every play, and does have some monster blocks in his tape.
Pat Elflein, on the other hand, the best thing I can say is that he’s probably better in a zone scheme than a power scheme. But otherwise he looks to be the weak link. His tape last year wasn’t good (he was the lowest rated offensive lineman in the NFL last season, according to PFF), but moving to guard and an outside zone scheme makes a change that can only lead to improvement, right? I’m not too sure about that, but we’ll have to see if he improves in training camp and in pre-season action. The good news is there are other guys that can play left guard that have better traits and track records than Elflein, so the Vikings are not locked into him as a starting left guard. It may be that offensive line coach Rick Dennison is able to correct some things with Elflein to make him more serviceable, but I also hope he is objective in how Elflein stands relative to the competition and isn’t afraid to make a change if need be.
The other thing about Elflein is that if he can impede the progress of his defender some, even if he isn’t able to take him out of the play, that combined with better blocks from his line mates can still open up seams for a running back. It’s not ideal, but with at least serviceable run blockers at the other offensive line positions, if Elflein proves to be a weak link it can be manageable - more so in an outside zone scheme than the inside zone scheme the Vikings ran last season.
All of these factors add up to an outside zone scheme being probably the best fit for the Vikings rushing offense, all things considered.
PLAY-ACTION PASSING / UNDER CENTER
Another major element of Kubiak’s offensive scheme is the play-action pass from under-center. Peyton Manning excepted, Kubiak has always ran his offense primarily (around 70% or so) from under-center.
That’s good news for Kirk Cousins, who’s career passer rating is 19 points higher from under-center than from shotgun (109.1 vs. 90.1). His sack rate under-center is lower - 4.8% vs. 5.6% in shotgun, his interception rate is also lower- 1.4% vs. 2.8% in shotgun. His adjusted yards per attempt is also higher under-center than shotgun (9.44 vs. 6.77).
It should also be noted that all of Cousins’ sack-fumbles last season, and all but one in his career, have come in shotgun formation.
Last year Cousins operated from the shotgun on 78% of his passing attempts. That will likely decrease by over 50% this season, given the historical average for Kubiak’s quarterbacks in Texas and Baltimore.
In 2014, when Kubiak became offensive coordinator for the Ravens, Joe Flacco went from 85% shotgun the previous year, to 37% in 2014. His passer rating jump 18 points, his sack rate declined over 50%, and his adjusted net yard per attempt jumped by over 2 yards. His interception rate dropped from 3.6% to 2.2%, and he threw for more yards despite 60 fewer passing attempts. Flacco was also under pressure on 4% fewer of his dropbacks according to PFF, going from 35.6% to 31.6% of his dropbacks being under pressure.
If Kubiak was able to get this type of improvement from Joe Flacco in 2014, imagine what he can do for Cousins in 2019 - especially given Cousins’ track record under-center vs. shotgun. A 10-15 point increase in his passer rating would likely put him in contention to be best in the league, given top passer ratings of the recent years.
The other thing about this key element of Kubiak’s offensive scheme and how it fits with Kirk Cousins at quarterback is the play-action pass.
According to PFF, Kirk Cousins has the 2nd highest passer rating in play-action passes of any quarterback since he became a starter in 2015, among QBs with at least 100 play-action dropbacks. In 2015, he had the top passer rating in play-action at 125.0. In 2016, he was 12th with a 100.8 passer rating. In 2017 he was 2nd with a 118.7 passer rating, and in 2018 he was 5th with a 116.1 passer rating.
Cousins has spent time in the past, particularly in Washington, working on his play-action sell technique in order to get linebackers and safeties to bite on it more. That has paid off in terms of better success in play-action. The only problem is that it wasn’t used as much last year as it might have been. Adding more play-action passes, as a percentage of the total, would likely increase Cousins’ efficiency.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, both excellent route runners, are a perfect fit for any west coast offensive scheme - Kubiak’s included.
Beyond that, there is the question of the third receiver for the Vikings. The past couple years it’s been Laquon Treadwell, who has failed to produce in that role. Going forward, there will be changes. First, the player in that role will change. Second, the role will change too in Kubiak’s offense.
Kubiak’s scheme uses a lot of two tight-end formations, and also some hybrid-type players that can lineup in multiple positions in the backfield, slot, or out wide. For the Vikings, newly drafted tight-end Irv Smith Jr., will take on one of those hybrid roles, most likely shifting between backfield, in-line, and slot positions - as he did during his college career at Alabama.
Tight-end Tyler Conklin looks to take on another of these hybrid roles, most likely shifting between in-line, slot, and wide out positions.
Of course these two tight-ends will complement the traditional in-line tight-end role occupied by Kyle Rudolph. Additionally, Kubiak’s scheme also employs a fullback that can also be a hybrid-type player as well. C.J. Ham will take on what may be a bit of an expanded role for him, and early reports suggest the athletic fullback will thrive in this role.
So, that third receiver job will likely be filled by a committee of Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, and C.J. Ham most of the time. But of course there is also a competition for the third wide receiver job, which looks to be shared by the smaller slot receiver Chad Beebe, and the larger outside receiver Jordan Taylor, depending on the matchup desired.
Overall, the Vikings have all players to fill the various hybrid and traditional receiver roles employed in Kubiak’s scheme - and fill them well. That should lead to more production than Laquon Treadwell had in the past.
RUN - PASS PLAY MIX
Perhaps the most drastic change in 2018 from 2017 was the run-pass play mix. The Vikings went from being 2nd in rushing attempts in 2017 to 27th in 2018. They averaged 22 rushing attempts per game in 2018, down from just over 31 the year before. Yards per attempt actually went up in 2018 though, from 3.9 to 4.2.
Historically, when Gary Kubiak has been offensive coordinator or head coach over the past ten years, his offense has averaged at least 25 rushing attempts per game, and as many as 34. They’ve also almost always averaged 4 yards per carry or better. And Dalvin Cook has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over his short career.
All this adds up to some simple math.
25 rushing attempts per game x 4.0 yards per rushing attempt = 100 yards per game.
You know how many games the Vikings have lost over the past 63 games (almost 4 seasons) when they’ve rushed for over 100 yards ?
Summing It Up - Why the Vikings Offense Will Be Good This Year
The Vikings spent the off-season revamping their offensive coaching staff, and installing a new scheme that will feature a few key elements that are well tailored to the Vikings offensive personnel.
First, the outside zone run and commitment to running the ball should take the pressure off of the Vikings offensive line and Kirk Cousins, while giving Dalvin Cook and the other Vikings running backs more opportunities to showcase their talent.
The Vikings have an ideal outside zone running back in Dalvin Cook, who’s one of the most elusive backs in the NFL and well suited and experienced running an outside zone game.
At the same time, the Vikings have invested in offensive line talent best suited to the outside zone run game - and also likely to upgrade a couple spots over last season.
Meanwhile, the key elements of the passing game coincide with the strengths of Kirk Cousins - namely play-action passing from under-center - and will also likely help minimize one of his weaknesses - fumbles. It should also help the offensive line by adding more balance and disguise to the Vikings play calls.
Beyond that, the Vikings will have a new third receiver - a variable chess piece to create matchup advantages and hopefully improve production over that of Laquon Treadwell in years past.
Lastly, the Vikings offense will remain committed to the run, and a balanced, complimentary approach. This is what the Kubiak offense has done from it’s inception, and this is what the Vikings coaching staff has indicated is their priority.
And when the Vikings rush for over 100 yards, they win.
The Vikings have all the weapons, and a stout defense as well. This season, they’ll have a well tailored scheme and experienced coaching on offense to better utilize those weapons,
It’s time to get excited about this Vikings offense.
It’s gonna be good.