There’s nothing groundbreaking about pre-snap motion. NFL teams use it between one-third to two-thirds of the time, to the point where it’s essentially white noise to the viewer.
Sometimes we forget, however, how effective it can be in manipulating the defense and subtly acting as a catalyst for big plays.
The Minnesota Vikings use of motion was critical in their 19-13 win over the Chicago Bears on Monday when yards were relatively hard to come by. Minnesota used it on 30 of 73 offensive plays, 41% of the time. With it, they notched 6.5 yards per play. Without it, 4.8. And motion was especially effective in the passing game, where Cousins delivered 9.4 yards per pass attempt on 17 throws.
“We have used it as a way to be part of our run game, pass game, bootlegs,” Cousins said Wednesday. “It shows up in a lot of different ways. It’s another creative way to present similar plays to the defense but in a way that looks different to them. Like any other play, there are looks that a defense can give that can hurt that play or make it harder to execute, so we’re just always trying to be aware of the times in the game or the weeks where it’s a good play, and the weeks where you’re not going to emphasize it as much.”
This isn’t the first time members of the Vikings offensive think tank have preached the importance of marrying run plays with pass plays to make them look similar. This was significant tenet of Kevin Stefanski’s offensive approach, which was, of course, heavily influenced by current coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Take a look at this two-play sequence late in the fourth quarter that helped Minnesota all but seal the game. The two plays are spliced together to showcase the resemblance between the concepts. Play 1 is a 1st and 10 where C.J. Ham motions to the backfield and acts as a lead blocker for Dalvin Cook on a four-yard gain. Play 2 sets up identically, a 2nd and 6 where the Vikings were still in a run-the-clock situation. Ham motions again within the same 22-personnel framework, only this time it turns into a Kirk Cousins play-action to Kyle Rudolph for 21 yards and a key first down.
Obviously the play above is the simplest of motions, but it helped sell the run to a Bears defense that was more than ready to pounce on the second-down run. Props to Kubiak for taking his shot on second down as opposed to the all-too-predictable third down play.
The Vikings do their best to avoid tells with their motion, which is important since they are still in the middle-to-bottom of the league in motion plays, giving opponents a more manageable number of snaps to scout.
“We do a lot of it in the run game and in the pass game,” said receiver Adam Thielen. “I think that’s the most important thing, that you do it in both run and pass, and that’s what makes it really difficult on defenses. They can’t just key in on, ‘Oh, when he does this, it’s a pass, or when he does it, it’s a run.’”
Minnesota actually had a pretty miserable time running the ball after motions on Monday — 12 carries, 42 yards and 3.5 yards per carry — but it kept play-actions like the one above believable. Considering their overall rushing average was 3.0 on 33 total attempts, post-motion carries were actually more effective.
The passing game is where they had the most success in Chicago. Cousins threw for 160 yards after motion, which the Vikings used on both his touchdown passes to Thielen.
Chad Beebe was the motion man both times as he vacated Thielen’s side of the field. Take a look at Touchdown No. 1, where Beebe’s movement shades safety Tashaun Gipson (No. 38) enough that he can’t provide help soon enough to Buster Skrine.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter, Beebe’s motion draws a possible help linebacker away from Cousins’ first read, Thielen, who beats Skrine again.
“It makes [defenses] think a little bit,” Thielen said, “makes them move a little bit, check their defense, maybe. Some teams have different checks depending on motions and shifts and things like that, so for me I don’t think a whole lot about it, because it’s just part of the play call. But I know the coaches do a great job of scheming those things up and making them all look the same.”
The Vikings actually used motion on six consecutive plays leading up to their go-ahead touchdown, culminating in Thielen’s catch above. But perhaps a more critical conversion came on 1st and 20 following a holding call that set the Vikings back to the Bears’ 48-yard line.
Again, Beebe has the critical movement that forces Chicago to mentally adjust their assignments in the handful of seconds before the snap. Skrine is forced to take Beebe, Roquan Smith then takes Ameer Abdullah who jets off into the flat, but nobody reacts to Rudolph over the middle. Danny Trevathan is late on the scene and misses the tackle, allowing Rudolph to rumble for an unlikely first down.
The Vikings may never be the Rams when it comes to at-the-snap motion, but they are savvy enough in the way they presently utilize it to put stress on defenses and spice up a run-heavy offense.