The Minnesota Vikings have a screen problem. You may remember a couple of highlights, like this Dalvin Cook touchdown or this revenge score from Ameer Abdullah against the Detroit Lions. But the entire portfolio of 2020 screen plays was an unmitigated disaster. Screens are intricately choreographed plays that require precise timing and execution to succeed. For this reason, they’re something you only see a few times per game at most. It’s not uncommon for things to go wrong.
But it is remarkable for things to go this wrong.
Things don’t get this bad for just one reason. There are many people to blame, from linemen themselves to the play designs. Let’s take stock and figure out what can be done to prevent this in 2021.
The timing is incredibly slow
Timing is as important to a screen play as the accuracy of the lobby pass or the ball carrier’s ability in space. When I call it “choreographed,” that’s not an exaggeration. The linemen, typically the center and both guards, should be perfectly synchronized and should arrive in front of the ball carrier at the same time the ball does. Sometimes Kirk Cousins would wait for linemen to get to their spot, inviting pressure and ruining the play elsewhere. Linemen need to get off of their blocks faster so they can get out to the flat and do their real job.
Here’s a compilation of defenders beating offensive linemen to the ballcarrier:
The truncated offseason program likely required the Vikings to prioritize some concepts over others. Since screens only show up two or three times on average, it’s more important to drill staple concepts like outside zone or the corresponding bootlegs. This timing issue is the result of a team that never got time to drill screens but still had to run them for the sake of unpredictability. To respond to this, the Vikings tried some… creative solutions.
The Tunnel Screen
The Vikings tried to capture the quick-pass, after-catch advantages of a screen in other ways. One common trick was the “tunnel” screen, pictured below and explained here. On a tunnel screen, offensive linemen don’t first fake a pass block and can instead instantly start working out toward the ballcarrier. That’s a little less deceptive, but it worked out okay.
Tunnel screens weren’t disastrous enough to throw out of the playbook and served as a decent way to manufacture targets for Justin Jefferson. Still, the Vikings weren’t quick enough to the edge to turn them into explosive plays. Jefferson is a superstar, but he has never been the best fit for tunnel screens. They could, however, acquire a player tailored to that after-catch role in the coming offseason.
Here are all of the tunnel screens the Vikings ran in 2020:
Whiffs. Whiffs everywhere.
Getting out into space and locking down a defender who is more agile than you is insanely difficult. These whiffs are funnier than they are disappointing, thanks to that degree of difficulty. But a big part of the Vikings’ offensive line strategy is honing in this skill. These linemen are better in the tighter world of second-level run blocking, but this year, the open ocean swallowed them whole.
Making Dalvin cook do all the work
Sometimes, screens worked out despite these problems. On the 50-yard touchdown that eventually iced the Week 8 win in Green Bay, Ezra Cleveland was incredibly late, only able to catch up after Cook had shed two other defenders. Cleveland eventually made it to the play, but Cook had to sift through a much messier situation than intended. That’s not the only time Dalvin Cook salvaged an otherwise catastrophic screen attempt.
Here are some plays from the above compilations that Cook turned into positive plays all by himself:
The inexplicable one-man screen
Late in the season, after three months of screen ineptitude, the Vikings tried an untested strategy. Rather than asking three linemen to go out simultaneously, they only asked Garrett Bradbury to. They widened the screen out a bit since they still had four in pass protection, relied on Cook and Bradbury’s speed to generate something new. It was kind of like a swing pass plus, but it never worked.
They ran this four times, generating one successful play, two stops, and a memorable pick-six:
It is difficult to speculate on the thought process behind this design. Swing passes are typically stapled to regular downfield passing concepts as an outlet. As the primary design, it lures as many defenders as a screen would, but with fewer blockers to handle it. Cousins won’t take as much pressure, but on a screen, that hardly matters. Screens must be designed to lure defenders north and south. They should either be in the offensive backfield or the defensive backfield, not in the flat waiting to envelop a doomed ballcarrier.
Next year the Vikings would do well to drill this in what will hopefully be an expanded offseason program. Even if their personnel doesn’t improve, these are clearly under-practiced plays. It would help to acquire a good after-catch receiver for those tunnel screens, like Curtis Samuel or a shifty rookie.
The Vikings had a lot of problems in their screen game. The linemen weren’t prepared to run them. Defenders juked them easily. Their efforts to design around these problems didn’t work out. Overall, it was a small portion of the Vikings offense, just 33 plays, but they were comedic enough to stick out in our minds. And perhaps they deserve to.