The dust has settled on the Scouting Combine, and the NFL is already bracing for the start of free agency next week. Fan-favorite Eric Kendricks suffered the initial wrath of the Minnesota Vikings’ difficult decisions as it pertains to their aging, expensive roster. And Skoldiers can rest assured that Kendricks probably won’t be the last.
While attending last week’s Combine, The Athletic‘s Alec Lewis, along with a few other beat writers, met with head coach Kevin O’Connell. In Lewis’ piece, O’Connell discussed a trend that opposing defenses implemented against Minnesota’s offense.
As he reviewed the way defenses matched up against his team, O’Connell noticed a trend. Teams that typically played with one-high safety against most opponents often utilized two-high safeties against the Vikings.
Lewis continues in the piece by saying that Justin Jefferson‘s superstar assentation was the obvious culprit behind the consistent two-high safety look. Last month, I wrote about how both the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs broke the rules this past season. And Kansas City’s rule-breaking ways are worth revisiting today. O’Connell and the offense are presented with the same problem that the Chiefs faced last year at this time: creating more advantageous looks from opposing defenses this offseason by forcing them out of two-high.
In 2021, the Chiefs’ offense fell victim to their own inability of overcoming constant two-high coverages. Armed with All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, opponents like the Cincinnati Bengals stayed in two-high and dared Andy Reid‘s offense to beat them with the running game and/or by a methodical short-to-intermediate passing attack. The reliance on the vertical passing game train was already too far down the tracks for Kansas City’s offense, and they weren’t quite prepared for turning the tables on opposing defenses.
And after losing Hill to an offseason trade, KC had no choice but to figure out a way to force defenses out of their customary two-high look. Reid and the Chiefs accomplished this feat by decreasing their usual three-receiver personnel groupings and instead opted for heavier personnel packages with two or three tight ends. According to NFeloapp.com, the 2021 Chiefs lined up in 12 or 13 personnel on 34% of their first downs. In 2022, the number of 12 or 13 personnel first downs jumped to 42% — which was fourth-highest in the entire league. In Year 1 of O’Connell, the Vikings lined up in 12 or 13 personnel on just 15% of their first downs, which was sixth-lowest in the NFL.
The reasoning behind the Chiefs’ decision to load up on heavier personnel packages:
- They created better numbers for its running game.
- Opposing defenses were forced to make a decision:
- Either stay in lighter nickel packages to prepare for Patrick Mahomes and the passing game
- Or revert to their base defense by bringing an extra linebacker on the field to properly defend the running game
- Once the Chiefs established their willingness to run the ball on lighter boxes, it forced defenses into single-high coverages.
Granted, having Kelce is the ultimate cheat code. His ability to be Kansas City’s top receiving target allows him to be split out, unlike a traditional in-line tight end. And even when the Chiefs were in 13-personnel with three tight ends on the field, they would still occasionally get into empty and let Mahomes go to work against two-high.
While T.J. Hockenson isn’t Kelce, he shares similar traits as a premier receiving option. Notice how the Vikings are in an 11-personnel look with Hockenson as the No. 3 receiver to the trips side.
Although the general conversation surrounding Minnesota’s offseason is about getting a quality No. 2 wide receiver to help prevent defenses from loading up on Jefferson, what if the Vikings took a page out of the Chiefs’ blueprint and went in a heavier direction that would leave defenses no choice but to bring additional defenders into the box with a single-high safety over the top? The long and short of it is that this would ultimately check multiple boxes for critical areas of improvement of Minnesota’s offense.
First, the Vikings could stand to benefit by consistently adding numbers to the running game on early downs by leaning on multiple tight end personnel packages. After all, Minnesota ranked 26th in the NFL last season by averaging just 4.1 yards per carry. And since the threat of Jefferson is still so daunting, defenses would more than likely call Minnesota’s bluff by remaining in two-high.
But what if the Vikings identified the consummate cheat code in this year’s draft that could solve this two-high conundrum? Enter former Georgia Bulldog tight end Darnell Washington. At 6’6″, 264 lbs., Washington is a unique tight end who can moonlight as a sixth offensive lineman in the run game. Watch him dominate SEC defenses by asserting his will in Georgia’s running game.
And if/when Minnesota’s opponents have to concede by bringing defenders into the box after getting whopped by Washington — along with Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill — in the running game, that’s when Jefferson can attack single-high safety coverage.
Let’s not forget, Washington is a cheat code in his own right with the ball in his hands.
On the surface, spending a premium first-round pick on a TE2 is the least sexy decision that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings could make in the upcoming draft. But considering Minnesota’s shortcomings in the run game, along with their inability to consistently force defenses out of two-high, Washington presents a serious opportunity for the Vikings to make overnight improvements on their two biggest offensive bugaboos from 2022. Pairing Hockenson with Washington would still allow for Minnesota’s 2022 Pro Bowl tight end to be the de facto No. 2 receiving option in the offense. And Washington’s sheer presence on early downs would theoretically create more opportunities for Jefferson to attack single-high coverages.
With Andy Reid and the Chiefs having cracked the code on the two-high light box problem for its offense en route to their second Super Bowl in four years, Washington just might be a necessary evil for the Vikings. And it’s a concession to Skoldiers still clamoring for another first-round wide receiver in April’s draft to pair with Jefferson.