As the Vikings prepare their game plan this week against the Giants, certainly they’ll want to add some new wrinkles on both sides of the ball. Let’s look at one option they may add offensively we didn’t see a lot in the first matchup.
Heavy Personnel Packages
The Vikings had good success running the ball against the Giants in week 16, although they didn’t do a lot of it. Dalvin Cook had 64 yards on 14 carries, averaging just over 4.5 yards per carry. That good per carry average shouldn’t come as a surprise against the Giants, who rank near the bottom of the league in EPA per rush allowed and yards per rush allowed.
One option the Vikings could use on Sunday to both augment their run game and counter some of what the Giants do defensively, is employ more heavy personnel packages. These include using double tight-ends, a tight-end and fullback, three tight ends, or even double tight-ends and a fullback. Using these packages could present a number of problems for the Giants style of defense, in both the run and pass game. Using a tight bunch formation can also achieve some similar effects.
Heavy Personnel Can Limit the Defensive Playbook
A couple weeks ago Vikings’ offensive coordinator Wes Phillips was asked about use of heavy personnel packages now that Irv Smith Jr. was back. One of his comments was that using heavy personnel tends to limit what the opposing defensive coordinator can do in response. The main reason is because offenses don’t often use heavy personnel packages, so defensive coordinators don’t spend a lot of time installing plays to counter them. As a result, Phillips said that often defensive coordinators will have a more limited number of play calls versus heavy personnel and also typically default to a base coverage scheme as well.
The Giant’s defensive coordinator, Wink Martindale, likes to blitz a lot (around 50% of dropbacks) and also use different defensive back packages. But against heavy personnel packages, he may not be able to do as much of that effectively. First, blitzing against heavy personnel isn’t likely to be as effective as the offense has the extra blockers to pick it up and will have quick-hit options to get the ball out quickly. Secondly, heavy personnel typically requires a base defense in response to better stop the run, which limits defensive back options. Heavy personnel may also draw a safety into the box as well to defend the run and/or a tight end. That typically leaves a single safety playing center field.
Heavy Personnel Can Create Some Matchup Issues for the Giants Against the Run and Pass
In the run game, heavy personnel could help the Vikings exploit the Giants’ weakness against the run. They’re near the bottom of the league in nearly every measure of run defense, from EPA, yards per rush allowed, and PFF run defense grade. The Vikings offensive linemen are all better run blockers than pass blockers, some significantly so (Ezra Cleveland) so there is a rationale for working the ground game against the Giants.
Heavy personnel can also create some advantages in the pass game. First, it can provide the extra blockers necessary to pick up blitzes and help prevent some hits and pressure on Kirk Cousins. Second, it can limit coverage options and defensive back personnel. For example, if the Giants want to put a safety over the top of Justin Jefferson, that leaves single coverage for everyone else. And if they blitz a defensive back normally in coverage against Jefferson, that’s a mismatch if Cousins can get the ball out in time. But it also creates mismatches for Irv Smith Jr. and TJ Hockenson, or even Dalvin Cook out of the backfield. The Giants are 31st in pass defense DVOA against tight ends, so having two receiving threats at tight end adds to the matchup advantage. Putting Jefferson in motion can further complicate things for the defense- especially with a jet sweep or two thrown in- along with play-action passes and audibles based on pre-snap looks.
Giants Have Seen Heavy Personnel Before- Including from the Vikings
The Vikings didn’t use heavy personnel packages extensively against the Giants Week 16, but they did use them on 22 of 72 offensive plays- with some success. The Cowboys used heavy personnel more extensively in their Thanksgiving matchup against the Giants- mainly double tight-end sets - with mixed success. They weren’t successful every play, but it did slow down the Giants blitzes and there was enough success to sustain drives with both run and pass plays out of heavy personnel. The Cowboys offensive line, while thought to be a good one, has suffered some injuries and they’re better pass blockers than run blockers. The Cowboys don’t have much talent at tight end either. And yet they put up 28 points on the Giants in that game, despite two Dak Prescott interceptions, in a 28-20 win that wasn’t close that close. The Giants were down 28-13 late in the fourth quarter but managed to score a touchdown in the final seconds of the game to make it look closer than it was.
Vikings Have the Personnel to Use Heavy Personnel Effectively
When Wes Phillips was talking about using heavy personnel and putting it into the game plan, one limiting factor he mentioned was not having enough active tight ends. For example, if a team installs a heavy personnel package for a particular game but has only two tight ends active and one of them goes down, that takes out the heavy personnel package too. But now that Irv Smith Jr. is back, the Vikings have three tight ends that will be active on Sunday- TJ Hockenson, Irv Smith Jr., and Johnny Mundt. And they have fullback CJ Ham as well, who also knows the tight end role.
Both Hockenson and Irv Smith Jr. are receiving threats (Hockenson a lot more proven than Smith Jr. at this point), and the Vikings giving CJ Ham some work against the Bears gives the Giants a little to think about too. Dump-offs to a back or tight end in heavy personnel behind Justin Jefferson could turn into big gainers with a lot of open space cleared out by Jefferson.
Even using Vikings playmakers JJ, TJ, and Dalvin Cook to draw defenders while others stay in to pass protect for a deep shot down field to KJ Osborn or Jalen Nailor (Adam Thielen isn’t that guy anymore) could prove to be a turning point in the game and would be worthwhile.
Using heavy personnel to exploit the Giants' defensive weaknesses against both the run game and tight ends could help the Vikings extend drives, increase time of possession, and wear down the Giants defense, while making their blitz packages less effective- especially early in drives. Wink Martindale likes to use his blitz packages early in drives early in drives to try and force three-and-outs and give the Giants offense better field possession. Using heavy personnel early in drives on the Vikings side of the field can help prevent 3-and-outs caused by Giants blitzes getting home. They can also be effective inside the red zone as well.
Using heavy personnel can also create opportunities for the Vikings to take shots and get the ball to their top playmakers- Justin Jefferson, TJ Hockenson, and Dalvin Cook while making the Giants play to their weaknesses defensively.
We’ll have to see if Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips elect to dial up more heavy personnel groupings on Sunday, but they could help the Vikings be more efficient offensively and eventually wear down the Giants defense late in the game.