I’ve selected a handful of plays from Kevin O’Connell’s 15-play opening drive against the Saints to analyze and break down his ability as a play caller. O’Connell utilized a variety of looks and personnel to manufacture favorable matchups for the Minnesota Vikings and toy with the Saints’ defense.
Starting with the opening play, a quick bubble screen to Justin Jefferson that gained 10 yards. The Vikings come out in 11 personnel Singleback (1 Back 1 TE) with a tight bunch to the left that turns into a stack after motioning the Z receiver, Thielen, across the formation. Defensively, the Saints are in a 2-high look that will likely play out as 2-man given Dennis Allen’s tendencies. The stack alignment gets Marshon Lattimore to play 8x1 off coverage (8 yards off the receiver, 1-yard outside leverage) against Justin Jefferson. Beyond getting your best player the ball in space, this play forces the Saints hand into playing less off-coverage later in the game.
Still in 11 personnel, the Vikings come out in gun empty with Jefferson, Thielen, and Osborn in a bunch and Irv and Dalvin stacked. On top of the bunch and stack alignments, the Vikings also incorporate switch releases on both sides of the formation, making it even harder for defenders to play man. The Vikings create green grass for Irv Smith’s short crosser with a horizontal-stretch route combination from the bunch to clear out the defenders. Smith catches the ball with Tyrann Mathieu a good 5 yards behind him and converts a crucial 3rd and long.
O’Connell gets into a variation of Sail-Basic, a staple concept of the 2021 Rams, but with the sail route run by Jefferson as the back. This leads to Saints Linebacker Pete Werner having to cover Justin Jefferson one on one with a two-way go, which goes about as well as you would expect. On the backside of the concept, Adam Thielen’s basic route against outside leverage off coverage is open as well. Looking further into Jefferson’s motion he starts as the X on the strong side of the formation split wide, eliciting press coverage from Lattimore. When he gets motioned, Lattimore bumps off the line of scrimmage to play off and outside against the stacked alignment. The tighter, more condensed formation makes every aspect of this play work better, it gives Irv Smith time and space to win outside, more room for Justin underneath, and opens a greater window for Adam Thielen.
Using the same empty, bunch + stack formation seen earlier on the drive, O’Connell exploits a matchup with Dalvin Cook and a linebacker in the passing game. This time the Vikings set up a rub play for Cook that involves Thielen and Osborn picking the underneath defenders and Justin Jefferson running a corner to create a late-developing hi-lo. Lattimore can stick with Jefferson, but that doesn’t matter as Werner can’t stick with Dalvin through the garbage. From Werner’s perspective, he must chase Dalvin across the entire field while avoiding the rub. Another example of getting a playmaker the ball in a favorable position with green grass in front of him.
After a penalty pushes them off the goal line, Kevin O’Connell responds with an Alexander Mattison touchdown off a screen. The Vikings come out in true empty against an off-man coverage look across the board with Mattison split out to the left sideline. The Saints are playing 3 defenders over 2 receivers to the left and 4 defenders over 3 receivers to the right with a sizable cushion, which gives the Vikings favorable numbers to run the screen. While the execution of this play deserves more praise than the call itself, O’Connell’s decision to use another screen to punish off-coverage and put Mattison in a favorable position to succeed behind 4 blockers is worthy of being included.
A common theme throughout most of these 5 plays is man coverage, which the Vikings beat in numerous ways such as rubs and stacked/bunched alignments. This opening drive, namely that success against man coverage, had residual effects throughout the game in how the Saints responded defensively and what that opened up offensively. In the future, I’ll do a breakdown more focused on the sequencing of drives and how plays tie into each other, but understanding why individual plays succeed is equally as important.