From the moment the Minnesota Vikings hired former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell as their next head coach, Skoldiers couldn’t help but fantasize about what Sean McVay’s scheme would look like in Minneapolis. And who could blame them? The football world watched the Rams light up scoreboards with new-age passing-game concepts en route to a Lombardi Trophy. With the success that McVay’s former assistants have had throughout the league — specifically, Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and Zac Taylor in Cincinnati — Minnesota was next in line for their own version of McVay’s high-flying scheme.
The offense has looked nothing short of spectacular in moments against the Green Bay Packers and in crunch time against the Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, and Chicago Bears. Still, the offense as a whole hasn’t met the expectations that a vast majority of Vikings fans had for it coming into the season. To be perfectly clear, high expectations were and still are warranted for this team’s offense. After all, the Vikings are dripping with talented playmakers in their skill-position rooms and a young offensive line anchored by second-year left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who is playing his way into Pro Bowl and All-Pro consideration.
But what’s interesting about McVay’s scheme with the Rams is that it underwent serious changes last season when general manager Les Snead traded for former Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, which ultimately helped push them over the top. Before McVay conceded that the Rams had reached their ceiling with former No. 1-overall pick Jared Goff as its quarterback from 2017 to 2020, the offense still had a ton of success. LA finished first and second in points scored in ’17 and ’18, respectively, and came just a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots in ’18. But Goff’s limitations could no longer be schemed appropriately for McVay, and the Rams decided that an upgrade at quarterback was necessary to reach their lofty goals.
When McVay took the Rams job, his offense mixed Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone run-game concepts from their time together in Washington with his unique pass-game concepts, which include a heavy emphasis on jet-motion and getting their playmakers in space. With Goff and former All-Pro running back Todd Gurley, the running game was the priority in McVay’s early days with the Rams. That way, Goff could lean into his strengths by being an effective passer off of play-action and not have too much on his plate.
However, the Rams unapologetically stuck Stafford in the gun last year and essentially said to hell with the running game. Now they had the type of quarterback who could sling the rock around the yard and get playmakers like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Odell Beckham Jr., and Van Jefferson going with a big-play, vertical passing game.
Interestingly enough, O’Connell was the Rams’ offensive coordinator for Goff’s final season in LA in 2020, so he clearly knows how to maximize a quarterback who comes with certain limitations. He also knows how to unleash an offense filled with talented pass-catchers and a quarterback in Stafford who can make all the throws.
Both versions of the Rams’ offenses from 2020 and 2021 sound appropriate for the Vikings, right?
However, Week 5’s contest against the Bears revealed something about which version of the Rams’ scheme would be most effective with Kirk Cousins and the Vikings.
On O’Connell’s opening script of plays, the Vikings leaned into the Goff version of McVay’s offense by putting Cousins under center and creating the illusion of complexity with bunched 11-personnel sets. To the naked eye, these appear to be heavier personnel packages. That’s not to say that the Vikings didn’t use heavy personnel with additional tight ends or a fullback early in the game on Sunday. After the Vikings successfully scored touchdowns on their first two drives, here’s how the offensive personnel packages broke down after 23 plays.
- 11-personnel (under center): 11 of 23 plays — 47.8%
- 11-personnel (shotgun): 5 of 23 plays — 21.7%
- 21-personnel (one fullback, one running back, one tight end, and two receivers): 3 of 23 plays — 13.0%
- 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers): 3 of 23 plays — 13.0%
- 22-personnel (one running back, one fullback, two tight ends, one receiver): 1 of 23 plays — 4.3%
Instead of treating Cousins like Stafford by sticking him in the gun, the Vikings made a concerted effort to get their running game going with Dalvin Cook, which allowed Justin Jefferson to get manufactured touches off of play-action. Make no mistake about it, those first two scoring drives represented the quintessential Goff version of the Rams’ offense. One that establishes the running game and gets the quarterback on the move with bootleg play-action passing. The drives concluded just as O’Connell had hoped with these personnel packages, with Cook punching it into the end zone on the ground.
On the third offensive drive, which resulted in another touchdown, O’Connell dipped back into his Stafford bag by sticking Cousins in the gun with regularity. On the 11-play scoring drive, the offensive personnel broke down as such:
- 11-personnel (shotgun): 7 of 11 plays — 63.6%
- 11-personnel (under center): 3 of 11 plays — 27.2%
- 11-personnel (empty shotgun): 1 of 11 plays — 9.1%
If the first three touchdown drives were any indication, it’s tough to argue that one style is better suited for Cousins and Minnesota than the other. To add to the dilemma, consider how Minnesota’s offensive personnel broke down on their final 17-play, game-winning scoring drive in the fourth quarter.
- 11-personnel (under center): 8 of 17 plays — 47.1%
- 11-personnel (shotgun): 8 of 17 plays — 47.1%
- 12-personnel: 1 of 17 plays — 5.9%
From a personnel standpoint, the Vikings are basically living in both worlds of the Goff and Stafford version of this scheme. However, it’s important to note that a staple of the Stafford version — 11-personnel empty out of shotgun — was hardly seen throughout the day. The Vikings’ offense got into empty on just five of 77 plays, which translated to just 6.5%. The offense experienced mixed results by asking Cousins to get his Stafford on and pick defenses apart out of empty. The success came with two different slot-fade concepts for Jefferson. One resulted in a big gain, and another drew a defensive holding penalty on fourth down. The bad came when the Bears dialed up a stunt with their front four on third-and-four, which beat rookie right guard Ed Ingram and resulted in a sack on Cousins.
Although the Vikings are executing both the Goff and Stafford versions of the McVay scheme from a formation standpoint, what O’Connell is asking of Cousins is the ultimate indicator. Check out how both Goff and Stafford went about their business with the Rams in 2020 and 2021 while playing under McVay and O’Connell.
- 78.7% of his pass attempts came out of shotgun.
- 24.8% of his pass attempts were a result of play-action.
- 64.3% of his pass attempts came out of shotgun.
- 33.3% of his pass attempts were a result of play-action.
Now let’s see how Cousins is faring in both departments after five games in 2022.
- 56.1% of his pass attempts are out of shotgun.
- 32.8% of his pass attempts are a result of play-action.
With this information, it’s abundantly clear that O’Connell and the Vikings are treating Cousins as a souped-up version of Goff: A quarterback who is most effective as a role player for an offense with an established running game that can protect him both philosophically and quite literally from opposing pass rushes and defensive coordinators who are inclined to test him against the blitz. And the latter has been on display lately. As a result of Minnesota leaning into the Goff version of the Rams’ scheme that puts a larger emphasis on the running game, defenses have only blitzed Cousins on 13.1% of his dropbacks over the past two weeks, even though Cousins has struggled mightily this season with a 55.6 passer rating against the blitz.
While it might not be as enticing as the Stafford version by living out of the gun and throwing the pigskin around at a high rate, the Vikings’ offense is best suited for the Goff version of the Rams scheme — as long as Cousins is their quarterback.