Some say the backup quarterback is the most popular guy on the team, and the same might be true for the backup offensive coordinator – at least in the eyes of fans who consider themselves true Monday Morning Quarterbacks.
Naturally, when Norv Turner resigned last Wednesday after engineering two dreadful offensive performances, Vikings faithful were eager for greener pastures.
With new playcaller Pat Shurmur at the helm last Sunday, the Vikings still endured a 22-16 loss, but they displayed a more dynamic and unpredictable offense than they’d shown the two previous weeks, making the head coach optimistic. “I felt like our football team has gotten some confidence back yesterday, even though we lost,” Mike Zimmer said.
Change No. 1 came in positioning. Shurmur roamed the sideline and voiced the play call directly to Bradford, whereas Turner relayed the call from the coaches box down to his son, Scott Turner, who passed it on to Bradford. This streamlined communication likely helped the Vikings with their up-tempo offensive approach, and Zimmer believed it led to success in several facets. “I thought we had good communication,” Zimmer said Monday. “Seventy-nine percent of the time, the pocket was clean for the quarterback. Sixty-one percent of the time we had efficient runs. We had good communication from the coaches to the offense, and I thought the adjustments we made were good.”
The Vikings went on to demonstrate a much different philosophy with their first down calls.
The Vikings went on to demonstrate a much different philosophy with their first down calls. Coming into the game, the Vikings were running the ball on 58 percent of their first-down plays – a large number; 10 percent more than the Detroit Lions.
Shurmur flipped things around and called pass plays on the first six first-down snaps. By game’s end, the Vikings had passed the ball 17 times on first downs and run the ball just 11 times (61 percent) – by far the most pass-happy they’d been all year in those situations.
The Vikings averaged 6.5 yards per play on first downs against Detroit. Under Turner, that number had been below 4 on five different occasions. “The defense can’t always know what you’re doing,” Shurmur said Thursday. “So, it’s either a run, or it’s a pass, and I think we were able to complete a few of them, which helped keep drives alive. We got an explosive play on a couple of them, and so, it’s just trying to keep the defense off balance. I think it helps everyone, the blockers. It helps the guys running their routes, if there’s a little bit of unpredictability.”
Shurmur picked up a trick or two during his time with the innovative Chip Kelly in Philadelphia – one of which was the up-tempo offense. Bradford appeared comfortable in the no-huddle, which makes sense after spending a year with the Eagles, who ran the second-most plays in football last year. The Vikings, for example, didn’t huddle on their first field goal drive and several times snapped the ball with over 20 seconds left on the play clock.
Pass protection was also better thanks to quicker releases from Bradford. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradford passed the ball in less than 2.5 seconds on over three-quarters of his dropbacks (76 percent). That’s 14 percent better than he’d done under Turner.
Instead of sending receivers vertically down the field and forcing Bradford into lower percentage throws under duress, Shurmur called plays for the Vikings’ athletes that allowed them to use their athleticism to amass yards after the catch. Stefon Diggs and Cordarrelle Patterson – the two shiftiness members of the team’s receiving corps – caught 19 balls, the majority of them within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. “We want to use the strengths of the players we have,” Shurmur said.
This strategy is great for moving the chains between the 20s, which the Vikings did quite well. It didn’t translate to the red zone, however, where the Vikings scored just two touchdowns in five tries and fell victim to penalties, a mistimed sack and a fourth-down failure.
With the bad comes some good, however. On the Vikings’ two touchdowns, Shurmur called for unique plays that were a breath of fresh air amidst a stretch of ineptitude in short-yardage situations. On the first touchdown, the Vikings used play-action to fool the Lions. Matt Asiata lined up behind brand new lead-blocking extraordinaire Linval Joseph, which seemed like a dead-on run sell, especially since the Vikings had pounded Asiata in a similar situation the week prior. Instead, Bradford faked the handoff to Asiata, who leaked into the right flat and drew the attention of three Lions, leaving Kyle Rudolph wide open for the touchdown grab.
On the Vikings’ final offensive play in the fourth quarter — with the game seemingly on the line — Shurmur went to virtually the same formation, using Joseph as the fullback, but this time sent Ellison in motion on the tight end sweep.
These non-traditional short-yardage calls will give defenses more to worry about moving forward. Teams have recently been selling out on the run and stymying the Vikings in goal-to-go situations, none more memorable than when the Bears and Lions — in consecutive weeks — stuffed Matt Asiata on a 4th and inches inside the 10-yard line. While Shurmur wasn’t perfect in his red zone playcalling, as evidenced by the aforementioned Asiata miss, he occasionally spread the field in his goal line offense, an effective way to stretch opposing defenses. At a minimum, Shurmur has taken strides toward being more unpredictable.
Minnesota’s 337 yards was its third best of the year, and it came during a week of transition in the coaching staff. With a full week for Shurmur to implement his ideas, the Vikings, in theory, should be more dynamic against Washington. “In terms of the second week, we’ve got a little bit more time to put the plan in,” said Shurmur, “kind of be able to look at the things we’re doing and try to run the plays that we feel are going to work the best.”