Two years ago the Minnesota Vikings offense was a major disappointment in a lost season. Fresh off of a 13-3 campaign that ended in an infamous 38-7 thrashing to the eventual champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The offseason started optimistically for the Vikings. After losing offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to the New York Giants, they replaced him with up-and-coming Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who along with current Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich was given major credit for the play of backup Nick Foles through his magical playoff run.
Minnesota then went out and got the prize of free agency when they signed former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to an unprecedented fully guaranteed 3-year, $84 million contract. With Dalvin Cook returning, expectations were high for their offense.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also went through something incredibly similar this last offseason. They went 7-9 in their first season under Bruce Arians after they convinced the former Arizona Cardinals coach to come out of retirement. The most notable storyline out of Tampa last year was Jameis Winston throwing for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, which cost the former No. 1 overall pick his job this season.
The Bucs went out and signed Tom Brady to throw to their two 1000-yard receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Add in troubled yet talented wideout Antonio Brown, and you’d think the Tampa offense would be more productive than it is.
The Buccaneers (7-5) have suffered losses to teams like the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Even with the abundance of weapons, there seems to be something off about the way the Buccaneers run their offense.
They look a lot like 2018 Vikings.
The Blame Game
Looking at both of these situations, you can see a clear disconnect between coach and quarterback. In 2018, Mike Zimmer was constantly at odds with DeFilippo. Vikings fans will remember when Zimmer had told DeFilippo to “run the ball more” after they had one of the worst running offenses the whole season.
Tampa Bay has undergone a similar type of situation this season, with Arians seemingly throwing Brady under the bus several times this season.
“(One interception) was a miscommunication between (Brady) and Mike (Evans),” Arians said after Tampa lost to New Orleans in the first game of the season. “He thought Mike was going down the middle – it was a different coverage – Mike read it right. He should have been across his face, but Tom overthrew it. The other one was a screen pass with an outlet called. He threw the outlet and it was a pick-six. Bad decision.”
The constant placing of the blame on Brady seems to point to a deeper disconnect between the play-caller and the most important player on the offense. In the case of the Vikings, the difference in philosophies ended in the firing of DeFilippo. We’ll see if Arians’ issues with Brady eventually cost him his job.
The run game
In 2018 the Vikings had hoped to replicate the incredible rushing attack that they had in 2017 under Pat Shurmur, where they averaged 122.3 yards per game. Despite losing Jerrick McKinnon to the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason, the Vikings had both Latavius Murray and Cook returning to spearhead their attack.
But the Vikings averaged just 85.4 yards per game two years ago, leaving them with the 30th ranked rushing attack under JDF. The lack of run game put more pressure on Cousins, making the team very predictable as defenses focused on Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
The Buccanneers have had a similar issue when it comes to balancing their play-calling under Arians, who has developed a reputation for being a pass-happy play-caller who neglected the run game. This season the Buccaneers rank near the bottom in every rushing statistic so far: They are the 6th worst team in yards per game (96.3) and have the 4th fewest rushing attempts in the entire league (277) this season.
Now I know that Cook and Jones are not comparable to one another because Cook is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He is second in yards in the NFL this season with 1250 through 12 games. Ronald Jones is having a great season up to this point when they chose to give him the ball. This season Jones is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and he has 820 yards on the season. He is well on his way to eclipsing 1000 yards for the first time in his career.
Failing to play to QBs strength
Another similarity between the 2018 Vikings and the current Buccaneers is how they both fail to play to the strengths of their quarterbacks.
Cousins has excelled running play-action under center. In his first season with the Vikings, however, Cousins was often operating out of the shotgun with minimal play-action opportunity because teams just didn’t fear the Vikings 30th ranked rushing attack. Things progressively got worse throughout the season. The offensive line wasn’t able to protect Cousins from the pass rushers who knew JDF and his pension for passing the ball.
Brady heavily relied on play-action in two of his final three seasons with the New England Patriots — they ranked top-5 in most play-action passes run. Tampa averaged the second-most yards per pass (10.4) when operating out of play-action with Winston last season, only trailing the Tennessee Titans. But Tampa ran the third-fewest play-action passes.
This season the Bucs still rank near the bottom in play-action plays despite averaging 9.3 yards per play when they use it.
How the Vikings defense should play the Buccaneers
Let’s look back at the Vikings-Patriots game from two years ago. At this game, New England capitalized on JDF’s inability to adapt and kept an incredibly light tackle box. The Vikings only ran the ball a total of 13 times for 95 yards, with Cook leading the way with nine carries for 84 yards.
When you have a running back getting 9.3 yards per carry, you would think that they would get the ball more than nine times. Without having to worry about the run game, the Patriots focused on doubling up Thielen and Diggs, forcing Cousins to find another option through the air to beat them. Thielen and Diggs finished the game with 10 catches and 77 yards total.
As recently as two weeks ago the Chiefs did something incredibly similar at the start of the game. They played two deep safeties early, doubling up Godwin and Evans, forcing Brady to use Rob Gronkowski more to beat them. If the Vikings are without Eric Kendricks, they will have a tough time dealing with Gronk in the middle, but I believe that they should employ a similar style of defense early in the game, daring Arians to change his pass-happy game plan and force them to use Ronald Jones instead of relying on Evans, Godwin and Brown.
Brady has consistently struggled in games where he is unable to step up into the pocket due to interior pressure this year. I would love to see Zimmer go back to pushing edge rushers inside on clear pass situations, forcing Brady to either make a quick decision or roll out of the pocket. This would take advantage of a weakened Tampa interior offensive line that is missing their center, A.Q Shipley.
If the Vikings are to keep their hopes alive for the playoffs, they need to steal a game in Tampa. A look into their recent past can provide them with some insight on how to defend this dynamic passing offense with playmakers all over the field.