You could make a good argument that no NFL offense has been as productive over the last three weeks as the Minnesota Vikings’.
The numbers back up the eye test. Since Week 5, the Vikings lead the league in yards per play (6.0) and total touchdowns (13). They are second to the Houston Texans in first-down percentage (30.1%), fewest punts (6) and total first downs (74). Kirk Cousins leads the league in touchdown passes (10), yards per attempt (10.8), play-action yards (592) and passer rating (142.6) over that span — by wide margins.
It’s a jaw-dropping shift from Week 4, when the Vikings needed garbage time to avoid a shutout against the Chicago Bears and fans readily jumped off the team’s bandwagon.
But beyond Cousins playing much better, has anything changed for the Vikings offense that might explain this sudden shift? There are a few subtle tells that give us some insight. Let’s take a look.
THROWING ON SECOND DOWN
In breaking down play types, it’s important to take game flow into consideration. For instance, the Vikings played in four straight games to begin the season that featured the winning team jumping out to a lead of 16 points or more. That changes a team’s run-pass balance in the second half, as evidenced by the Vikings’ 38 running plays in wins over Atlanta and Oakland.
But isolate the first halves alone, when play-calling remains more independent of the score, and you’ll see that the Vikings appear to be changing philosophically when it comes to their aggressiveness earlier in series.
One might expect that the Vikings’ run-pass selection on first down would be skewing more pass-heavily over the last three weeks. Not the case. Minnesota ran it 30 out of 52 times (57.7%) on first down in first halves through Week 4. Since then: 31 times out of 55 (56.4%), a minuscule difference.
It’s second down where the philosophy has changed. Take a look at their run-heavy play-calling on first-half, second-down plays through the Chicago game. No team rushed it more than the Vikings, and no team passed it less. Minnesota actually had decent success with this imbalance, earning the third-most yards per play in the league. Dalvin Cook’s 75-yard touchdown run at Green Bay helped with that.
But Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak clearly envisioned more explosive potential. Over the last three games, the Vikings have flipped the script, calling for just 15 run plays versus 21 pass plays. In doing so, they’ve increased their yards per play in those situations by close to a yard and moved up to third in first-down percentage. Over the last three weeks, Cousins is 16 of 20 with 235 yards, 11.8 yards per attempt and two touchdowns under these parameters, including his strike to Adam Thielen on Sunday.
DOMINANCE OUT OF “21” PERSONNEL
The Vikings have leaned heavily on two-back, one-tight end sets this season. For four weeks, they ran it at the second-highest frequency in the league, per Sharp Football, at 26% of the time. From that, they passed it 42% of the time at 9.8 yards per attempt, while Cousins posted a 128.3 passer rating and threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Pretty good.
Perhaps Minnesota recognized how well this was working. In Weeks 5-6, the Vikings threw the ball 10% more often out of “21” with uncanny results. On 16 dropbacks, Cousins had 14 completions at 17.5 (!) yards per attempt with no sacks, no interceptions and three touchdowns. Those included both of Cousins’ long touchdown passes to Stefon Diggs in Week 6 versus Philadelphia.
STEFON DIGGS DOES IT AGAIN❗️
– Last two drives –
• 62-yard TD ✅
• 51-yard TD ✅
– On the day –
• 4 rec
• 135 yards
• 2 TDs
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) October 13, 2019
Meanwhile, the running game stayed robust. The Vikings had 15 carries out of “21” at a gaudy 8.3 yards per carry. The highlights: Alexander Mattison’s 35-yard run versus Philly and Dalvin Cook’s 41-yard run at the New York Giants.
And amazingly, only seven teams in the league had attempted more than five plays out of this formation in those two weeks. The Vikings had 31, and only increased that total against Detroit.
UPDATE: Including Week 7 personnel data, Cousins is now 20 of 26 with six touchdowns, 14.3 yards per attempt and no interceptions out of “21” the last three weeks. They are rushing it at 6.8 yards per carry.
Fullback C.J. Ham’s presence is one factor contributing toward their excellence, considering Ham is often the second back in these formations. Not only does he provide Cousins with an extra protector, at times, in the passing game, but his lead blocking has paved the way for many of Cook’s longer runs. Ham has logged the most run-blocking snaps of any fullback in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, and set season highs in snaps each of the past two weeks at 34 and 39. He has the second-highest run-blocking grade in the league.
The fullback credits Cook, who presently leads the NFL in rushing yards.
“There’s a couple of times where I didn’t have my guy well, and [Cook] got out of it, so ‘Thank you,'” Ham said Monday. “He’s a special running back to have.”
Speaking of a spike in reps, rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. has seen an increase the last three weeks, going from a 28-snap-per-game average in Weeks 1-4 to 38 per game over the past three weeks.
He has seven receptions over the past two games for 89 yards, including 60 yards at Detroit. His increase in snaps may stem from his growing ability as a blocker. PFF ranks Smith as the 12th-best qualified run-blocker out of all NFL tight ends.
Smith is also lining up on the boundary more often, splitting out wide for 13 reps since Week 5 — a step up from just six reps out wide in the first four games. Cousins has found him for gains of 29 and 28 yards, respectively, over the past two games. Kyle Rudolph also came up with a season-high five catches for 60 yards in Sunday’s tight end renaissance in Detroit.
“We knew our time was coming,” said Smith, “and we took advantage of it.”
None of the tweaks mentioned above necessarily reflect drastic changes, but the Vikings’ coaching staff deserves credit for correcting imbalances, emphasizing strengths and getting the most out of all their playmakers, even a fullback and a backup tight end.
CORRECTION: A previous version cited the Vikings’ “21” personnel stats as being through Week 7. They should have been through Week 6, as Week 7 data had not yet been released.