Eventually, we will need to move on from the Vikings Week 1 win over the Packers. Today is not that day. After a week of podcasts and film review, here are my top two schematic takeaways from the start of the Vikings season.
Kevin O’Connell can maximize Justin Jefferson simply by alignment
If years of watching the NFL has taught us anything, we should not overreact to performances in week 1. It is not an overreaction, however, to be extremely excited about how Justin Jefferson was used in Kevin O’Connell’s offense in a 23-7 win over the Packers.
Jefferson aligned in multiple positions, was open consistently, and completed plays after the catch. He lined up out wide, in the slot, as part of bunch, and even in the backfield.
A new game for NFL defensive coordinators: where is 18? O'Connell had Justin Jefferson in multiple alignments, in motion, and in favorable matchups throughout the game pic.twitter.com/9w3D2U8wdb— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) September 12, 2022
A varied alignment menu does more than just force a defense to track a receiver. As the league continues to see more 2 high shells, teams are committing to stopping chunk plays. Yet, every defense has a weakness. To over simplify Cover 4, the defense is prioritizing stopping deep passes by putting a dome over the offense’s route distribution. Cornerbacks play vertical conscious knowing the structure of the defense, while Safeties play over the top of routes as well.
One of the offense’s natural responses to this is placing better receiving threats in the slot to attack the quarters flat defenders (often linebackers!). Kevin O’Connell did this numerous times with Choice routes that we discussed in our preseason offense primer. The Choice route is effective in part because it is adaptable. It allows the receiver to adjust their route based on what the defenses is presenting. The defense covers you inside? Go outside. The defense covers you outside? Go inside. The defense is on both of your sides? Settle in the middle.
Above, the defense is playing a 2 high shell against an Empty look from the offense. The defense wants to force shorter throws that require the offense to make play after play down the field. Jefferson ends up matched up with a linebacker, and the Vikings are able to take advantage of it. Below, O’Connell used motion and the defense’s rules to get Jefferson on a linebacker once again.
Vikings come out in Bunch vs. Penny. Jefferson's motion doesn't change the passing strength and the Nickel does not travel. Jefferson ends up matched up with 91. Nice formation manipulation to gain an advantage pic.twitter.com/VU0pHnh9Ma— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) September 13, 2022
Jefferson is a receiver that can win 1 on 1, but it is encouraging to see him in positions to succeed based solely on alignment. Lining up in different positions, going in motion, and shifting around a formation all make it harder for the defense to delay Jefferson’s release or keep a single coverage defender over him for an entire game. If a defense does choose to lock a cornerback on Jefferson, look for Kevin O’Connell to use these same alignment manipulations to stress the defense’s structure.
Flooding coverages on defense to gain a numbers advantage
In the pass game, offenses want to create matchup and numbers problems for the defense. The Packers offense uses lesser seen 4x1 formations to try to manipulate the defense’s coverage structure, have a numbers advantage somewhere on the field, and test the defense’s ability to communicate routes. To deal with the offense, defenses must be flexible in how they solve problems.
The best place to see this with the Vikings is how the weak side (away from the passing strength) safety plays in Ed Donatell’s defense. As the defense starts in a 2 high shell, the weak side safety can play many roles. They may be asked to cover the flat, cover a deep half, cover the deep middle of the field, or even work to the frontside receivers. By having varied post-snap possibilities, the Quarterback is forced to do more work while the pass rush is bearing down.
In Week 1, The Vikings sent their talented back side safety, Harrison Smith, to the frontside of formations to gain a numbers advantage where the offense was looking to attack. The safety working from depth relieves stress from the linebackers by preventing issues where a linebacker may be asked to run down the entire field with a speedy receiver in other coverages. This is a common practice in the Fangio tree; Lock up the back side, flood the frontside.
Guessing D is in HQQ w/Trix to get 6 over 4 again. Nice job staying on top of the route and high pointing the ball for an INT by Harrison Smith. Love seeing Harrison Phillips (97) working to chase this down too! pic.twitter.com/Ke06ECgO4r— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) September 12, 2022
Flooding the frontside of coverages depends heavily on being able to lock up the back side with 1 on 1s. In Week 1, the Packers were not able to take advantage of these looks. Next week may be different, however, as the Vikings make their way to Philadelphia for a Monday appointment with Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, and the Eagles.