Historically, having one wide receiver call out the quarterback on a podcast (or historically equivalent medium) and another receiver skip practices and not deny trade demand rumors would derail a team for the remainder of the season. For the Minnesota Vikings, it turned into the kick they needed to turn a sputtering offense around.
Since a Week 4 loss to the Chicago Bears in which the Vikings scored just six points, Minnesota has been one of the league’s best offenses. Through Week 4, the Vikings were 15th in offensive DVOA though that was mostly carried by an efficient run game. In two of Minnesota’s first four games, the passing offense had negative DVOA — both against divisional opponents. Now, after Week 8, the Vikings are fifth in offensive DVOA and ninth through the air.
Kirk Cousins has been on a tear over the past four games. He’s completed 78.5% of his passes for 10.9 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns against one interception. Not all credit can be given to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, though. The Vikings, under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, have made noticeable changes to spark this offensive breakout.
Before the season, the Vikings made it known they wanted to run the ball. John DiFillippo was let go as offensive coordinator in 2018 because head coach Mike Zimmer thought the offense was too pass-heavy. Zimmer has mostly gotten what he wanted this season. Minnesota has thrown the ball on 47% of their offensive plays this season, which is the second-lowest rate behind the San Francisco 49ers.
Early in the season, the Vikings were running just to run, without much thought of how it would set up the offense later in drives and games. They were also incredibly run-heavy on early downs in the first half — a big difference between them and the 49ers, who still leaned to the pass in those situations.
From Weeks 1-4, the Vikings threw the ball 42% of the time on first and second down in the first half, the lowest rate in the league. Even while the run game had success, it put them behind the sticks and forced long third downs.
Over the past four weeks, Minnesota has thrown the ball on 54% of first and second down plays in the first half, which is still below the league average and ranks 24th, but puts a bigger emphasis on the pass. It also helps that the Vikings are averaging 11.8 yards per attempt on those throws, compared to 6.9 yards per attempt over the first quarter of the season.
It’s not just that the Vikings started trending more towards the pass, it’s how they’ve done it. A lot of that stems from personnel usage. Minnesota has been one of the most diverse offenses from a personnel grouping standpoint this season but it didn’t really give them an advantage in the early part of the season because they mostly did what teams are expected to do; they passed from three wide receiver sets and ran from heavier groupings.
Minnesota’s personnel frequency changed a bit from Weeks 1-4 to 5-8. They’re more diverse and even less reliant on three receiver sets. The biggest shift was a drop in 11 personnel usage and a rise in 22 personnel.
*personnel formatting is by running back and tight ends on the field, (11 personnel is one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. 12 personnel is one back, two tight ends, and two receivers).
Vikings Personnel Rates, 2019
For a team that wants to run the ball, shifting to heavier formations could be a disaster since it gives the defense the look of a run. But the Vikings haven’t fallen into that trap. Instead, they’ve subverted expectations and embraced analytically and common sense backed ideas of going heavy to throw and spread to run. Here are Minnesota’s pass rates from each personnel grouping over the two four weeks stretches.
Vikings Pass Rates by Personnel, 2019
The Vikings are now running significantly more from 11 personnel and throwing more from their heavier looks. They’re over 50% pass from 12 personnel, nearly there from 21, and have doubled the passing rate from 22.
This shift has opened things up for the offense both through the air and on the ground. Let’s start with the run game. Running more from 11 personnel spreads the field for the offense, keeps more defensive backs on the field, and lightens the box upfront.
Previous studies have shown that the raw number of men in the box, not blocking advantage or disadvantage (difference between offensive line + defenders) is what most controls yards per carry on a given play. A box of six or fewer is considered light, seven is neutral and eight or more is stacked.
With the shift to a more open run game, the Vikings have gotten Dalvin Cook into more space and he’s run into fewer stacked boxes in Weeks 5-8 than he did over the first four weeks of the season, per Sports Info Solutions charting.
Dalvin Cook Attempts by Defensive Box Count, 2019
|Weeks||Attempts||6 or fewer||7||8 or more|
On top of this, the Vikings have gotten creative in play design and have worked at using misdirection on top of the personnel usage. Here’s a 14-yard run from Cook against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6. Minnesota was in 11 personnel with a bunch to the right. The formation set up a seven-man box from the Eagles. Before the snap, Diggs motioned to the left, which got the defense to flow to that side — most notably the outside corner. The play was a pitch to the right for Cook, who broke free and was just tripped up by the single-high safety.
Getting Cook more room around the line and fewer defenders in the box is obviously a good strategy and it helps even more because of how hard he is, typically, to bring down on first contact. Cook is second in the league in missed tackles forced (45 total — 30 on runs, 15 on receptions) and clearing defenders from the box by personnel usage increases the chance that first defender is getting to Cook further from the line of scrimmage. Even in the play above where the first touch defender does make the tackle, it was still after a 14-yard gain.
While the lighter packages have helped the run game, the heavier formations have helped open up the pass. Kirk Cousins is at his best working off play-action, which has been the case his entire career. Throwing from heavy personnel basically has the same pre-snap impact of play-action because the defense is already expecting run from those packages. Then add on a play fake to the start, and the defense has no suspicion of a pass.
This has been most notable for the Vikings in 21 personnel with fullback C.J. Ham on the field. Per NFLGSIS, Minnesota’s most used personnel grouping features Cousins, Cook, Ham, Thielen, Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph along with the five starting offensive linemen. That group has played 26 offensive snaps (specific player groupings are on the field together less often than you’d think), for 18 rushing plays and eight passes. On those pass plays, the Vikings have averaged 10.4 yards gained.
Minnesota is one of a few teams that has heavily used a fullback in 2019 and they have been one of the best at taking advantage both on using play-action and pass efficiency in general. These are the nine teams with at least 30 drop backs from 21 personnel.
Their second most used grouping switches Ham for tight end Irv Smith and the Vikings find even more success there. They’ve used that specific lineup on 22 plays (13 pass, nine run) and averaged 13.2 yards per pass attempt.
Minnesota opened with that lineup for their first play against the Detroit Lions in Week 7. The personnel with two tight ends kept the Lions in base with three linebackers on the field, but the Vikings had the offense spread four wide with Diggs to the right and Thielen, Smith, and Rudolph to the left. Rudolph motioned in pre-snap, which got the linebackers to creep towards the line, and the Vikings still faked the run, which could not have made the linebackers bite more than they did. That left a huge opening for Diggs and a 15-yard gain to get the Vikings out from their own end zone.
The numbers the Vikings have put up might not be sustainable for the rest of the season, but the way in which they have found success can easily be continued. Keeping the defense guessing by passing from typical run formations and running from passing looks adds an extra element to what has also become a well-designed offense on top of that.
Minnesota’s schedule gets a little harder over the second half of the season, but that’s more about the offenses they’ll face than the defenses. The Vikings got off to a rough start, but have figured out what works best for them on offense. That revelation could turn what might have been a disastrous implosion into a potential playoff run.