As we get into Vikings training camp, there have been some comments on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball in terms of changes, areas of emphasis, and perhaps some different approaches which we will likely see on the field come September, if not to some extent in pre-season games.
Let’s look at what some of these elements may be, beginning with the Vikings’ new offense.
More Aggressive - On Our Terms
Kevin O’Connell has talked about being aggressive - on our terms - on both sides of the ball. Offensively, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Vikings will pass more than they did last season. The Rams with O’Connell as offensive coordinator passed on 59.31% of their offensive plays last season. The Vikings passed on 58.54% of theirs. Not a significant difference and I wouldn’t expect that to change much this season.
What I would expect is for the Vikings to be more aggressive in setting the terms of engagement on offense. Let me explain.
More Pre-Snap Movement
The Rams’ offense under O’Connell and Sean McVay uses more motion and shifts than the Vikings used last season. A lot of people think that is to help identify if the defense is playing man or zone coverage- when a defensive back follows the motion receiver that means man coverage, and if he doesn’t that means zone coverage. Well, that may be true, but there are other keys for an offense to know if a team is playing man or zone, such as inside (man) or outside (zone) leverage by outside cornerbacks on their receivers. The real reason for the movement is to potentially create some mismatches in coverage, or to create better blocking angles, or a route running advantage off the line of scrimmage, and to create some confusion on the defensive side that can either slow their execution or increase the chance for mistakes. They can also be used for deception if you usually run one play with a certain motion, leading a defense to expect the same play when they see that motion again, only to run another play and catch them off-guard. It may or may not also dictate some aspect of the defensive play-call as well. The bottom line is that pre-snap movement is designed to help the offense set the terms of engagement for the play in their favor.
Last season the Rams used pre-snap motion/shift just under half of their offensive plays (47.4%) which was slightly above league average (14th). The last data I could find for the Vikings last season had them using pre-snap motion about a third of the time (35.1%)- well below league average. I would doubt the Vikings would use it more than the Rams have in recent years this season, simply because it’s a lot to install in the first year running O’Connell’s scheme. But you never know.
The downside to using more pre-snap movement is it can result in more penalties if not executed correctly. Additionally, it’s a lot more for players to learn, and that can lead to mistakes in execution as well.
More Tempo / No Huddle
The Rams offense also used more tempo (no huddle) last season than the Vikings- 170 vs. 57 plays for the Vikings. Going no huddle, including hurry-up at the end of halves, can often be dictated by game situation, but also used selectively to exploit a perceived advantage. For example, keeping what is viewed as favorable defensive personnel on the field, or forcing a particular coverage the offense wants to see (often zone) as defenses may elect to go with a default coverage when they don’t have time for a particular play call. It can also be used when the offense feels they have a conditioning advantage they try to exploit by limiting rest time between plays. Both offensive coordinator Wes Phillips and Kevin O’Connell have mentioned using tempo as part of the offensive gameplan.
Kirk Cousins said that this was the biggest change in the playbook, both in terms of terminology and plays, since he first arrived in Minnesota. So, while the Kubiak scheme the Vikings used previously was an off shoot of the Shanahan scheme, as is the Rams scheme that Kevin O’Connell brings, there will still be a lot of changes in play design along with other aspects from the Kubiak scheme.
In the ground game, the Vikings are going to more of an inside zone run scheme rather than more of an outside/wide zone scheme that they’ve run previously. I suspect they’ll still run both concepts, and some power/gap scheme as well, but with inside zone predominant among them.
In the pass game, new route designs and/or adaptations of previous ones, and a greater use of 11 personnel (3WR) formations, including bunch formations in both run and pass plays. The Vikings ran more 11 personnel last season than in the previous two, but still near the bottom of the league at 47% of offensive plays. The Rams led the league in 11 personnel, at 86% of offensive plays. But while I expect a notable increase in 11 personnel, the Vikings have a different set of skill players compared to the Rams, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings didn’t use 11 personnel as much as the Rams did last season.
Lastly, how O’Connell and Company intend to use Justin Jefferson may be different than how he was used last season, but also different than how the Rams used Cooper Kupp last season too. Here is a good in-depth analysis of the possibilities.
More Authority for Kirk Cousins, But Also More Direction
Kevin O’Connell has said he wants Kirk Cousins to have the authority in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage to audible and make changes as he sees fit, and maybe even work on his off-script/scramble drill process to make him feel more comfortable in those situations.
But Cousins has also said that O’Connell has provided some direction on certain plays, in a given defensive situation, telling Cousins to go with a particular route in his progression that he otherwise would not have thrown to. That suggests O’Connell is building more detail into the playbook by defining options he wants Cousins to take on a given play and against a particular defensive look.
For example, the direction might be if Justin Jefferson draws single man coverage on this play and this route, throw to that route and don’t progress. Jefferson had the second highest PFF grade against man coverage last season after Cooper Kupp. Or it might be that if this route draws a linebacker in coverage, throw it there. The idea being that O’Connell wants Cousins to execute on what he sees as favorable matchups, which could result in Cousins appearing to be more aggressive in his decision-making. That direction could be further refined in weekly game plans, as O’Connell looks to exploit particular player matchups.
Building those more specific directions into the playbook, as opposed to a more general direction to focus on favorable matchups, is a clever way to potentially get more out of the offense in a way that also works to Cousins’ strengths as an accurate, but usually more conservative, quarterback in his decision-making. For example, if Cousins’ first read appears to be covered, he may progress to his next read without regard to the matchup, looking for/preferring a more open receiver instead. There are pros/cons to each, but by giving Cousins specific direction, he can execute quicker on-script- which is his strength- while being more of an extension of the head coach in his decision making.
More of a Run/Pass Mix on Each Down
Both the Rams and Vikings had roughly a 50/50 mix of run/pass plays on first down last season, but the Rams passed more on second down (62%) compared to the Vikings (54%), while the Vikings passed more on third down (83%) compared to the Rams (76%). Obviously success rates (and penalties) on early downs dictate to some extent run/pass play selection on later downs, but the Vikings had the third-lowest success rate running on second down in the league last year, and ranked 27th overall in second down success rate, which led to a more predictable (83%) third down passing rate. That, in turn, led to the Vikings also having a low success rate (27th overall) on third down as well.
By contrast, the Rams had the third highest success rate on second down, which led to them having the 5th highest success rate on third down, by having easier conversion attempts.
Overall, the Rams had the sixth highest successful play rate (success defined as gaining at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down) in the league last season at 50%, while the Vikings were ranked 25th at 45%. A big part of the reason for the Vikings’ poor success rate was that they had the longest distance to go, on average, for the play to be successful in the league at 8.8 yards. Penalties (Vikings were the 9th highest penalized offensive team last season by penalty yards) and poor execution (in part perhaps due to poor play design/selection), were key reasons behind this and the related inefficiency.
The Vikings depended a lot on explosive plays (20+ yard passing plays, 10+ yard running plays) for their success, and they generated those at the 5th highest rate in the league last season (Rams were 9th). But the Vikings were not as efficient on bread-and-butter plays to move the sticks, as poor execution/play calling/play design and penalties put them in poor situations to convert 3rd downs.
Still Players, not Plays
While good coaching, scheme, and play design can help put players in good positions to be successful, it’s still up to the players to execute- usually against some pretty good opponents. Mistakes can be costly, while an exceptional performance can turn bad plays into good ones or make good ones even better. Hopefully the coaching staff will do a good job getting everyone up-to-speed on the new scheme, so mistakes will be limited.
The Vikings continue to have one of the best lineups of offensive skill position players in the league, but the offensive line has been their Achilles heel. There is a reasonable basis for modest improvement up front- Darrisaw in year two is likely to be better than Rashod Hill/rookie year Darrisaw at left tackle, and there is a reasonable chance Jesse Davis will be better than Oli Udoh at right guard, or at least produce fewer penalties. What improvement we can expect from Ezra Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury is uncertain at this point, while it’s reasonable to expect Brian O’Neill to maintain his performance level of the past couple years as he remains in his prime. Getting Irv Smith Jr. back should be a positive over last season as well. How well those changes show up in better offensive performance remains to be seen, but the Vikings offense ranked 14th last year in points and 12th in yards, so it wouldn’t take much improvement to lift them to at least a top ten unit this season.
Some question how well Kevin O’Connell will do as a play caller- it’s his first full season calling plays - but I don’t see a decline from Klint Kubiak last season- who was also in his first season calling plays.
Kevin O’Connell, Wes Phillips, and Company appear to be going a step further in the level of detail, and therefore complexity, in their offensive playbook as they bring the Rams’ scheme with them from LA- but adapted to Minnesota. At least compared to the Kubiak scheme the Vikings have run in recent years. The idea behind it all is to be more proactive in attempting to gain the little advantages necessary for greater success, whether a better blocking angle, a route running advantage, a better matchup, or simply creating some added confusion for the defense pre-snap to give the offense an advantage in execution.
All that feeds into O’Connell’s philosophy of being aggressive- on our own terms. All those scheme nuances are meant to set favorable terms of engagement for the offense to exploit- giving the offense some advantage in their execution while putting the opposing defense in less tenable situations.
The heart of the scheme, like many others, is to create uncertainty for the defense by running different plays out of the same formations- but using pre-snap movement and tempo more often to distract and confuse the defense and hinder their own play execution. While sometimes that pre-snap movement may only amount to window dressing, most of the time it’s meant to create those little advantages here and there to increase the chance of success. Beyond that, more specific direction for Kirk Cousins may help the offense exploit situations O’Connell feels are matchup advantages in the passing game, while at the same time giving Cousins more freedom to get the team in the right play at the line of scrimmage.
Where do you think the Vikings’ offense will rank this season?
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