Through four weeks of the NFL season, only two teams have run the ball more than they’ve thrown — the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers. Those run-heavy approaches have produced mixed results. The 49ers are seventh in both yards and points per drive, while the Vikings rank 12th in points per drive despite a 22nd ranking in yards per drive.
Both of these teams have been successful on the ground, with Minnesota even having the edge in efficiency. The Vikings are fourth in rushing DVOA through four weeks, while the 49ers rank seventh. But San Francisco comes off a Week 4 bye at 3-0 and in control of the NFC West. Minnesota, however, is 2-2 and fourth in a suddenly deep and competitive NFC North. There also aren’t many positive reviews coming for this Vikings offense.
The tipping point for Minnesota already came from a 16-6 Week 4 loss to the Chicago Bears. After the game, Adam Thielen was vocally frustrated and Stefon Diggs stepped away from the team for a few days as trade rumors picked up.
Adam Thielen: “At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL. That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. … You have to be able to hit the deep balls.”
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) September 30, 2019
There is reseason for those two to be frustrated with what the Vikings are doing. What has separated the Vikings and 49ers in success while focusing heavily on the run is the ability to take advantage of the passes they do throw. San Francisco is 10th in passing DVOA but the Vikings are just 27th. It’s the difference between an offense that has been able to function at a high level and one that has its two star wide receivers revolting against it.
San Francisco and Minnesota both use heavy personnel more than any other teams in the league. While 11 personnel (three wide receivers) has become the norm across the NFL (62% of offensive plays in the NFL have been from that personnel grouping), the 49ers have used it 39% of the time and the Vikings have used it 31% of plays. The only team with a lower rate of 11 personnel is the Arizona Cardinals (26%0, who more often add another wide receiver and lead the league with 59% of their plays from 10 personnel.
Both the Vikings and 49ers go the other way, favoring an extra back. San Francisco uses 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) 36% of the time and Minnesota uses it on 26% of plays. Where they stray is how they use two tight ends. The Vikings use 12 personnel 28% of the time while the 49ers prefer to add the tight end to their two-back sets and use 22 personnel on 16% of plays.
The ideas behind these two offenses are very similar. But only one has fully embraced those ideas into a fit it into the structure of the offense and for the players within it. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has a long history of using run scheme and building around it with heavy play-action. It’s always been a big part of how his scheme worked. That’s why everything appears to work together. Right now the Vikings playing this way because their head coach wants to run the ball more.
Everything the Vikings have set out to do on offense this season is in spite of what they have been the best at doing. Despite using 11 personnel on the third-lowest rate of plays, that’s where the offense has been its best. They average 8.9 yards per attempt throwing from 11 personnel. That number is slightly higher from 12 (9.3) but completely craters when they throw from 21 (3.9).
Dalvin Cook has also been more successful on a per-play basis running from 11, which helps to spread out the defense and open up the middle of the field. Here’s how Cook has performed in the three most-used personnel groupings, by Expected Points Added per Sports Info Solutions.
|Personnel||Attempts||EPA/Att||Positive Play %|
What’s worse is what the Vikings were supposed to be good at, the play-action game preferred by both quarterback Kirk Cousins and offensive assistant Gary Kubiak hasn’t worked. The Vikings are still using play-action often — their 29% usage rate ranks eighth — but they only rank 24th in yards per play (6.3) when using it.
Cousins has been one of the league’s better play-action passers dating back to his time in Washington, but the success hasn’t been there in 2019. Part of that is on Cousins, himself. Per SIS charting, Cousins has only thrown a catchable ball on 70% percent of his play-action attempts, which ranks 26th among 38 quarterbacks with at least five attempts. Last year, Cousins had an on-target rate of 83.2% on play-action passes, which ranked 10th.
It’s been worse out of the heavy personnel sets. No quarterback has more play-action attempts than Cousins from 21 personnel, but he has completed just half his passes, been on-target for 56.3% of them, and averaged 3.7 yards per attempt. Compare that to Jimmy Garoppolo, who has the second-most play-action attempts from 21 and has completed 85.7% for 15.4 yards per attempt.
A big difference here is how aggressive the teams have been taking shots off play-action from heavy personnel.
Only three of Cousins’s 16 play-action attempts from 21 have traveled at least 15 yards down the field and Cousins has only been on-target for one of those attempts — a 20-yard attempt to Thielen in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers. The pass itself wasn’t exactly a shot play.
Meanwhile, six of Garoppolo’s 14 play-action attempts from 21 have traveled at least 15 yards down the field and the 49ers have been incredibly successful on those throws. Garoppolo has been accurate on all six passes and has averaged 24.8 yards per attempt.
Watch the difference between how receivers are schemed open off play-action fro San Francisco and what happened in the above clip for Minnesota.
Many teams say they want to build their play-action game off their successful scheme, but few teams actually pull it off — fewer to the extent of Shanahan and the 49ers. San Fransico has also fully embraced play-action. They use it on a higher rate than any other team (36% of drop backs) and their 9.9 yards per play ranks sixth.
These plays can be there for Minnesota — they missed an open shot to Theilen this past week against the Bears — but they haven’t been called enough and haven’t been executed when they have. When there are so few opportunities, they need to connect.
Perhaps the biggest secret of the 49ers’ run-heavy offense, and what has separated it from the Vikings’, is it hasn’t really been run-heavy when it matters. On first and second downs in the first half of games, San Francisco has thrown the ball 56% of the time, just barely below the league average in that situation (57%). It’s not until later in the game when the 49rs go all out with the run.
Minnesota is the exact opposite. They are dead last in pass percentage on first and second downs in the first half (36%). The next-lowest team is the New York Jets, who throw the ball 46% of the time. The Vikings don’t flip to the pass until later in games when they have to either keep up with opponents or come from behind.
Both of these teams are focused on their run games, but approach it in wildly different directions. The 49ers have set up a coherent scheme around their play-caller, quarterback, and surrounding talent and built off to for an effective passing game that allows the run to take over later in games.
But the Vikings have switched to a heavy personnel ground game that goes against everything they’ve been set up to do well. This was less of a concentrated effort to get the best out of the offense and more of a switch to the run for the sake of running. As long as that is the case and the Vikings can’t take advantage of open opportunities in the passing game, they won’t match what the 49ers have been able to produce and they’ll be too far behind to fix it.