With three games of film and data available, we can begin to understand the schematic identities of offenses around the NFL. When the Chicago Bears host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon, they will encounter an offense that has produced some explosive plays in an interesting manner. In an era of offensive football predicated on the passing attack, the Vikings seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has attempted just 63 passes this season, the lowest amount of any quarterback who has started three games. For reference, Ben Roethlisberger, whose season ended with an injury during Week 2, attempted 62 over the course of less than two complete games.
Additionally, the Vikings have attempted 34.3 rushes per game, third-most in the league.
Putting these numbers, as well as the film together, paints the picture of an offense that wants to run the football and build off of that running game an effective play-action passing attack. Here are some of the examples of what Minnesota does on the offensive side of the football.
At their heart, the Vikings want to run the football off of wide and outside zone running plays. These designs play to the strengths of running back Dalvin Cook, including his quick burst, footwork and speed to the edge. Here is an example of what this outside zone game looks like on film:
This is a play from Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons. Facing a 2nd and 4 on the Atlanta 40-yard line, the Vikings line up using 13 offensive personnel and with Cousins (#8) under center. Cook (#33) is the running back in the game, and the Vikings have three receivers to the right who are all tight ends. Kyle Rudolph (#82) aligns in-line, Irv Smith (#84) aligns in the slot and Brandon Dillon (#86) aligns out wide. Minnesota runs wide zone to the right side of the formation, and on this play the running back has three potential reads:
He aims for the right tackle and reads the blocking unfolding in front of him before making his decision. He can either execute his “bang” read, where he attacks the hole at his aiming point, he can execute a “bend” read where he exploits a potential cutback lane, or he can “bounce” this run and try to get outside the right end. On this play a hole opens immediately and Cook rips off a big gain.
Here is a look at this play from the end zone angle. You can see the zone blocking form up front, Cook aiming for his landmark and then exploding through the hole upfield. From there he picks up blocking from Smith and Dillon:
Having seen an example of their wide zone rushing game, we can turn to what the Vikings do in the passing game off of this basic design.
Later in this Week 1 contest the Vikings face a 1st and 10 in their own territory. They align again with Cousins under center and Cook in the backfield. Adam Thielen (#19) aligns in a tight alignment outside the right tackle:
This is the play-action passing concept Minnesota employs:
Coming off a run fake on an outside zone running play to Cook to the right edge, Cousins boots back to the left side. From there he has a three-level passing attack to choose from: A deep comeback route along the left sideline and a pair of crossing routes working from right to left, including a shallow crosser from Thielen. Cousins sees his wide receiver matched up against a linebacker underneath, and quickly throws to his receiver in the left flat:
Here is another example of the Vikings running a three-level passing concept off of a play-action boot design. Facing a 1st and 10 on their own 39-yard line, Cousins lines up under center with “12” offensive personnel in the game. He fakes a handoff to the left edge and boots back to the right, where he has this route concept to choose from:
Wide receiver Chad Beebe (#12) runs an intermediate crossing route from left to right, while Thielen runs a “circle” route, bending inside before breaking back toward the boundary on an angle. The third route is to the flat from Smith, who makes it look like he is blocking across the formation before releasing towards the sideline.
Cousins throws to his rookie tight end in the flat, who picks up some blocking downfield:
The flag on the play is for an illegal block downfield, which reduces the amount of yardage the Vikings gain on the play, but the route design is again the key here. Building off their outside zone running game, the QB has three routes to choose from and takes his easiest throw.
Here is another example of this three-level passing concept off of play-action:
This time the Vikings have “20” offensive personnel in the game, and after making his run fake to the left, Cousins boots back to the right. The route he throws is a pivot route to Thielen, who starts on the right side, shows the defense a potential slant route and then breaks back toward the right sideline to mirror his quarterback. The other two, deeper, options are an intermediate crossing route from left to right and a deep comeback route along the right sideline.
So at this point, we have seen multiple examples of the Vikings setting up this three-level read for their quarterback off of boot action. Now we can see one variation of this design they have used, and it worked in a very big way against the Oakland Raiders.
Facing a 1st and 10 against the Raiders, Cousins lines up under center and the offense has “11” offensive personnel in the game. Thielen aligns in the slot to the left:
Cousins carries out a run fake to the right and then boots back to the left. Given what we have seen, we might expect the Vikings to give him a three-level stretch that looks something like this:
However, the Vikings have something different in mind:
Thielen works all the way across the formation, and Cousins hits him on a deep throwback for a touchdown:
When this game kicks off Sunday, the Bears’ defense can expect a lot of wide and outside zone run action, with play-action passing plays built off of that. While the majority of those plays will be using a three-level read for Cousins to choose from, the defense needs to be wary of a throwback design like this one. These three-level designs are a great way to flood an area of the field ad give the quarterback some easy reads, and we have seen numbers tell us that play-action passing can be a cheat code of sorts for an offense. (Hint hint…)
Either way, expect a heavy dose of outside running, and play-action built off of that style of play.