The Minnesota Vikings didn’t do anything ground-breaking to find success in the play-action on Sunday.
They simply ran the ball efficiently to set up ideal situations.
Kirk Cousins is 83 for 108 with 984 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions on play-action plays this season, per Pro Football Focus, ranking in the top 10 for attempts, completions, total yards and accuracy. Per game, that breaks down to roughly 6 for 8, 70 yards.
Sunday’s performance was a similar 6 for 7, though Cousins was more explosive than usual, amassing 103 play-action yards through the air, his second-best effort of the season behind Week 2’s 194 yards in Green Bay.
“It helps when you run the football,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “They were crowding the line of scrimmage, so that helped a little bit.”
The Vikings ran the ball 12 times in the first quarter at 8.3 yards per carry and passed it seven times, mixing in four play-actions. Cousins used the play-fake to set up Dalvin Cook’s 27-yard screen, Adam Thielen’s 14-yard diving catch, Aldrick Robinson’s 4-yard swing pass and Stefon Diggs’ 13-yard touchdown. They also completed a 16-yard play-action pass to Thielen that was wiped out by an illegal man downfield penalty.
Three of those four plays used pre-snap motion from a receiver, while the other resulted in Diggs’ touchdown as he emerged from a bunch set on the right side when Miami’s linebackers bit hard on the fake.
“The touchdown to Diggs, the corner had bad eyes,” Zimmer said. “He was looking inside at the runner, the quarterback. When you catch guys doing that, then you can take advantage of it.”
The Vikings didn’t convert a play-action in the second quarter but had two more in the third. One, a 12-yard dump-off to Kyle Rudolph. The other, a 33-yard connection to third-string tight end Tyler Conklin on a 3rd-and-1 bootleg.
“That was a helluva call by Coach Stefanski,” Conklin said. “I’m glad I had an opportunity like that, and the fact that they showed confidence in, not just me, the tight ends in general. When we run the ball that well and we play-action on 3rd and 1 they have to respect it.”
Conklin’s catch was the only play-action attempt on a third down. The rest came in 1st and 10 or 2nd-and-medium situations that are tougher to predict defensively. The Vikings averaged 5.8 yards on first-down carries Sunday, over a yard better than their season average of 4.5 coming in.
Cousins’ only two failures occurred on faulty protection. Cameron Wake came unblocked on a 2nd and 5 rollout that forced Cousins to throw the ball into the ground. He was later sacked on a 1st and 10 by Robert Quinn, who quickly beat Riley Reiff on the edge. Cousins also threw an incompletion to Rudolph on play-action that was negated by a defensive holding call.
All in all, the Vikings got back to the winning formula they perfected in 2017: effectively rushing the set up the pass.
“This was a big one for us,” said Rudolph. “To come home and reestablish what our identity is as a football team, but so as an offense. We want to be a physical, run-first team that takes advantage of play-action, and I thought we did that well.”