Where Did Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen Go?

Photo Credit: Matt Blewett (USA TODAY Sports)

Ever since Stefon Diggs started to get upset around the 2018 season, target share has been a hot-button issue in Minnesota. After every game, you may find yourself looking up the target numbers for Justin Jefferson, maybe Adam Thielen too. Then, if it’s not over some arbitrarily high number, your mind may wander back to the days of Diggs. You might recall how there is said to be truth to all rumors and brace for the worst.

Justin Jefferson is not Stefon Diggs, but it’s still frustrating to see him disappear for large chunks of a given game. What’s happening to these players? Are they declining? Is Kirk Cousins failing to find them downfield? Did Mike Zimmer convince Klint Kubiak to throw more screens to Tyler Conklin than deep posts to Thielen?

The answer to that question varies game to game, and even depending on who you ask. Cousins missed several viable opportunities to hit his superstars downfield against the Dallas Cowboys. It’d be easy to assume that the same thing happened against the Baltimore Ravens, but a different problem reared its ugly head. And it will only get worse with time.

How The Vikings Go Deep

A central question to each offense is how it creates its explosive plays. Some teams want to run vertical concepts to stress safeties. Some want to have the ball perpetually in the hands of dynamic, explosive playmakers. In today’s NFL, many teams have “shot” plays. It’s an umbrella term for a deep pass that might not be a high-percentage throw, but it’s a shot. Usually, those plays have some sort of underneath concept worked in as well, in case the defense is committing to the shot.

These shot plays are all well and good, but it takes time to run a route 30 yards downfield. So you have to buy your quarterback some time. If you have Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, he may do that for you. Cousins isn’t that style of quarterback, so we have to work a little harder.

The simplest way to unlock a shot play is to use extra blockers. More pass protection should equal more time in most cases. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent blockers from losing their blocks, and it takes receivers out of the progression. A deep pass is easier to cover if only two or three receivers run a route. It’s easier to block and harder to run. Maybe that’s a burden we can comfortably place on them with the elite receivers the Vikings have.

The bootleg flood concept is a version of shot play the Vikings have had since Gary Kubiak (and friends) joined the team in 2019. The Vikings fake a run one way, then Cousins runs the other way along with all of the receivers. That vertically stresses most coverages since very few defenses will have a short, intermediate, and long defender on one sideline. It’s responsible for several memorable highlights over the years.

Failing all of this, the Vikings can sometimes elect not to wait at all. Jefferson can run down the sideline pretty quickly in the time it takes for a lofty pass to make it downfield. If he can beat a cornerback off of his release, the play might be there. However, it has to be the perfect coverage and the perfect leverage, or else a safety could turn it into an interception.

How teams respond to it

Unfortunately, nowadays the bootleg is old news. Defenses have seen it and have tweaked their coverages to stop it. First, they sent their edge rushers straight at Cousins. Since the run goes the opposite direction, the edge rusher on the back side of the run doesn’t have a terribly important responsibility. He can just go straight at the quarterback.

The Vikings have tried a handful of things to keep this open, but defenses have committed pretty hard to it. There are run plays that can punish this particular adjustment, but defenses will accept that. If you’re running in a situation where you would have gone to an explosive play, that’s a win defensively.

On the deep end, teams have also adjusted their coverages to take away the Vikings’ favorite deep plays. One, called “Yankee,” involves two deep routes crossing over each other downfield. It’s meant to put the deepest defender in conflict. He has to choose one deep receiver or the other, so you can throw it to whomever he doesn’t choose. Often, this route concept leaves a cornerback chasing a receiver across the field. Teams have adjusted by allowing that cornerback to peel from one route to the other, “nailing” the deeper route.

Further, a bootleg might not be available to you in all game situations. In third-and-long or late-game situations, run action won’t influence any defenders, so the offense needs to find a new way to push the ball down the field.

Where we are now

The bootleg isn’t much of a shot play anymore, unfortunately. Failing that, we have two ways left to get deep: seven- or eight-man protections, and “green apple” looks where Cousins can drop back and throw it immediately. If the look isn’t perfect, we only have one way to get deep. The Vikings’ shot plays have been reduced to a singular page of the playbook: whatever Kubiak can dream up with two or three receivers.

The story might be different if the Vikings had a better offensive line or a quarterback who could buy time in a scramble drill. We don’t have those things. The Vikings willfully built a team without those things. Cousins is a different style of quarterback than Patrick Mahomes. And the Vikings have a long tradition of sabotaging their plans on the offensive line.

This isn’t a unique situation. The Vikings are one team of many running a bootleg-heavy offense. But they seem to be particularly poor at rising to this challenge. Deep concepts have to play off of each other. From the protection to the route combinations on each side, each piece of the play needs to work in harmony. The Vikings’ play designs are disjointed, and that allows the defense to compartmentalize.

It’s much easier for a defense to win a series of two-on-two matchups than it is with a complex 11-on-11 machine. They aren’t thinking with anticipation down the field. The opposing defense is consistently one step ahead of the Vikings’ offense schematically. Even the Ravens’ 32nd-ranked passing defense could outfox Klint Kubiak and his painfully elementary passing offense.

That lack of complexity is to be expected with Kubiak’s inexperience. But of course, that raises the question: Why did the Vikings commit to that inexperience in the first place? There is, of course, a point to be made about nepotism. The Vikings valued continuity on offense over quality, and it might just cost everyone their jobs.

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