An entire season of heavy dependence on Kirk Cousins. Week after week of abandoning the run game, regardless of how well it was working. Consistent public criticism of play-calling by the head coach. All of that seemed to go away on Sunday as the Vikings rolled to 41 points on the back of their rushing attack.
A discrepancy of 36 designed runs versus 21 pass attempts is something Vikings fans thought they may never see again. But alas, Minnesota found the end zone on each of their first three drives of the game, the first time they did that all season, and continued to feed Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray the rest of the way. The two combined for 204 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries.
When Kevin Stefanski took over play-calling duties following John DeFilippo’s firing, the prevailing assumption was that the running game would take center stage. DeFilippo effectively lost his job for his failure to run. Stefanski, on the other hand, is a Minnesota lifer who was with the team for the entirety of Adrian Peterson’s run. He has coached virtually every position group. If anyone on staff understands the importance of balance, it is him.
Even with the Vikings’ perceived upgrade at quarterback in 2018, balance and simplicity should have been a must from the beginning. Last season, Pat Shurmur showed how to use a limited quarterback to his full potential. Case Keenum had a great season thanks to plenty of running, effective play action and not having more on his shoulders than he could handle. While Cousins is more capable of handling a greater passing load than Keenum is, he still has a level of streakiness that a coach has to gameplan around. That means running the football early and often, keeping the threat of play action, gettin receivers into open space and not asking him to win games by himself every single week.
True, some of the Vikings’ best offensive performances this year included little running game. Cousins had some great games this year with bulk production. But all of their anemic offensive performances involved the same dearth of runs. Just look at weeks 11 through 14.
This season has proven what many already knew when Cousins signed for $84 million: he is good enough to win games, even occasionally doing it by himself. But depending on him to throw 40 to 50 times every week is not in the Vikings’ best interest. He is too mistake-prone, too susceptible to pressure, too oft fighting spurts of inaccuracy.
When Cousins is on, he can light up a stat sheet. But the Vikings’ best chance at maintaining offensive excellence is utilizing him like they did Keenum. That is, play to his strengths, mask his weaknesses. Make him a part of the offense, not the whole offense. Cousins’ ceiling is far higher than Keenum’s. Keenum never once played as well as Cousins has in a few games this season. He also rarely cratered as low.
In week 15,Stefanski used weapons the way Shurmur did a season ago. He loaded up a side with his talented receivers, forced defenders to make decisions and gave Cousins open space to make his reads. He also nearly doubled DeFilippo’s play action numbers, 32 percent Sunday versus 18.6 percent the previous 13 games. And that is significant beyond the deception and misdirection element play action provides. Cousins is a rhythm passer who likes the play to develop as he drops back then get the ball out at the top. Stefanski mostly ran these play action plays under center, playing better to Cousins’ style. DeFilippo, on the other hand, put Cousins in shotgun time and time again, forcing him to make more reads and preventing that drop rhythm on which he works well.
The number of bootlegs from under center also allowed Cousins to work in space without the threat of pressure. And with the run game working effectively, the Dolphins’ line never had the chance to pin their ears back.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Stefanski employs some straight dropbacks from under center. The Vikings have almost never used them this season, essentially using shotgun for all straight drop passes. Perhaps Cousins simply needs abundant play action to be consistently effective. After all, it works for a lot of the good, not great quarterbacks in today’s NFL.
There is a perception that a good running game is needed to set up play action. And since the Vikings have had a number of games where the running game never got off the bus, it would stand to reason the effectiveness of play action would be lessened. However, years of data show that the quality of the running game has little bearing on the effectivness of play action. both in the macro and micro sense. Merely the threat of running the ball at all has more of an impact. So realistically, the Vikings could, and probably should start working play action into 40 percent of dropbacks. Stefanski is getting there, at 32 percent.
This year in the NFL has seen more top scoring offenses become pass-heavy. Three of the top-10 offenses in terms of points per game are also in the top-10 for pass play percentage (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Indianapolis). But four of them are in the bottom 10 (New England, Chicago, New Orleans and Seattle). As such, there is no exact, catch-all formula for being a great offense. Some teams thrive with balance, others succeed by putting everything on their quarterback. The Vikings appear to be the former, given the personnel and coaching styles.
The Vikings currently rank fifth in the league in pass play percentage at 64.8 percent. With Stefanski at the helm, expect that number to dwindle a bit these last two weeks.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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