How does one counter a poorly-performing offensive line?
College football seemed to find the answer far earlier than the NFL did. In college spread offenses, the battle up front matters far less than space and movement. The NFL has moved away from the traditional trench battles, and has instead largely embraced spread philosophies present in college offenses.
So, the Vikings did not exactly build up a stout line this offseason, and that is certainly costing the Vikings in the running game. But in the passing game, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is hammering home the schemes that have blossomed from Bill Walsh out to Andy Reid and Doug Pederson while also incorporating the spacing elements of modern spread offenses. It essentially comes down to a few key features:
- Get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand as quickly as possible.
- Use movement and misdirection to gain advantage, e.g. moving the line one way and throwing the other.
- Force defenses to make quick decisions.
- Use play action early and often on deep drops (one does not need a successful running game for this to work).
With Minnesota in particular, these facets of their offense play to their biggest strengths, their quarterback and their playmakers. At the same time, it covers up their greatest flaw, which is their offensive line.
The Vikings ran 61 plays on Sunday. Of those 61, 39 were Kirk Cousins dropbacks, including two swing screens, which some registered as runs. 15 of those dropbacks included play action, nine had some form of misdirection and six were screens. Also, DeFilippo called six total run-pass options, most of which Cousins chose the run option, so they are not included as dropbacks.
On Cousins’ 39 dropbacks, he released the ball before the 2.6-second mark 23 times. So DeFilippo made it a point to get the ball out of Cousins’ hand quickly and into the arms of his weapons. Plus, an overwhelming majority of Cousins’ passes were of the West Coast variety, that is, short and quick. Only eight passes traveled more than 10 yards in the air.
That is how the Vikings won the battle up front (at least in the passing game) against one of the better defensive lines in football in Philadelphia. Cousins took a lot of hits: 11, according to the official stat sheet. But he was only sacked once and took advantage of the Eagles’ biggest weakness by forcing the secondary to make quick reads and reactions. This gameplan was quite reminiscent of last year’s Eagles offense for whom DeFilippo coached. It is tough to defend an offense that makes things happen quickly.
Now, the Vikings’ quick-hit offense has worked two weeks in a row against under-performing pass defenses. Obviously, the opponent makes a difference when evaluating how successful they have been in masking their line deficiencies. Perhaps better coverage teams can upset the timing a bit more than Philadelphia or Los Angeles did. The thing is, however, that this type of offense is sustainable. Quick, efficient passing games have worked since the late-70s, and in today’s NFL, it is almost a requirement. Minnesota simply has the playmakers to do it as well as anyone.