During Kevin Stefanski’s first press conference as the Vikings’ interim offensive coordinator on Thursday, the former quarterbacks coach made it clear he’s been paying attention to the not-so-subtle expectations coach Mike Zimmer has been laying out for his offense in recent weeks.
“I think Coach Zimmer has been pretty clear since he’s been here what he wants in his offense,” Stefanski said. “It is Minnesota Vikings offense that is obviously a physical group. It really just matches the players that Coach Zimmer and Rick [Spielman] have acquired here. It’s a physical group, it’s a smart group that hopefully we are versatile enough to make it hard on the defense.”
The Vikings’ run percentage on first and second down had ticked up since Zimmer issued what sources have described as a midseason mandate to his coaching staff to run the ball more. Their productivity on offense during that time has dropped, and it remains to be seen whether Stefanski will be able to recharge a group after a dip in production ultimately made it possible for Zimmer to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
But one of the challenges that helped stall the Vikings’ offense under DeFilippo will remain for Stefanski: the degree to which opponents have made it their top priority to slow down Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Both receivers said they saw more double teams from the Seahawks’ defense on Monday night, adding that Diggs faced a triple team at one point in the game.
“I think for the most part, third downs, we’re getting a lot of double coverage, both of us,” Thielen said. “Some games, on first and second downs, as well. [It’s] a little bit different than what we got early in the season, obviously. But at the same time, that’s what we expected to get and what we’ve gotten.”
The two receivers have combined for 267 of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 513 targets this season; Thielen eclipsed 100 catches against the Seahawks, while Diggs has 88 catches with three games to go. But their production against Seattle — nine catches for 146 yards, with much of it coming in the second half — was quiet by their standards, and their combined 16 targets produced just 10 catches for 67 yards in a loss to the Patriots the week before.
When asked about the double teams on Wednesday, Cousins said, “There was a lot of discussion, just even talking to my own family after the game, that they noticed watching on TV that Adam and Stefon are being doubled and taken away. That was true probably the first two third downs of the game, and really, the rest of the game, I didn’t know it showing up. While that is happening, it happened against the Lions, it happened against the Patriots. It’s going to happen; that’s part of it. But it’s not play-in and play-out all game long, so I don’t want to overstate that. Certainly, from time to time, they’ll be doubled.”
Even if Diggs and Thielen aren’t being double-teamed constantly, it’s clear teams have opted recently to try and beat the Vikings offense by not blitzing Cousins and playing coverage to take away their receivers.
The Seahawks sent extra pressure after the quarterback just four times on Monday night, according to Pro Football Focus, and Cousins has been blitzed an average of just 10.5 times per game this season. Those blitzes have accounted for just five of the 32 sacks he’s taken this season, and he’s only thrown two of his nine interceptions when blitzed. If teams are able to pressure Cousins as frequently as they’ve been able to do without blitzing, there’s little incentive for them to devote extra resources to going after the quarterback.
Coach Mike Zimmer said on Thursday the Vikings haven’t done enough to adjust when Diggs and Thielen receive extra attention, saying the issues lie mostly in execution. Cousins had a chance for a big play to Thielen against the Patriots, when the receiver split Devin and Jason McCourty with a nifty move on a seam route, but Thielen couldn’t make the kind of diving catch he’s pulled off so often this season.
Still, it would help the Vikings if other receivers became a big enough factor to make teams think twice about focusing on Thielen and Diggs. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has hauled in 48 of his 65 targets, performing as a reliable safety valve for Cousins, but Laquon Treadwell’s 34 catches have gone for just 295 yards, and he’s dropped five passes this season.
The Vikings have made periodic attempts to get Dalvin Cook more involved in the passing game this season, and they could give the running back more of the role that Jerick McKinnon enjoyed in Minnesota, lining up in the slot more often while catching screen passes out of the backfield. Cook has been in the slot for just 11 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus; moving him around the formation could give him more opportunities to get the ball in space.
“I think it’s our job and we’re charged with getting those guys the football in space,” Stefanski said. “We, as a staff, are really lucky to have some really dynamic talented players. So we have to figure out a way to do it. It changes and it varies by game because certain teams have a certain plan to take those two guys away. The nice part is we have a very unselfish group, so if it’s going to be a big Stefon Diggs game, Adam’s great about it. If there is going to be a big Kyle Rudolph game, those guys are great about it. So, I think the ball goes where the ball goes, but we as coaches need to try to design plays to get the ball, obviously, to our playmakers.”
As teams have clamped down on Diggs and Thielen, it’s been clear the Vikings have struggled to form a counterattack. They’ll try to do so on Sunday against a Dolphins defense ranked 25th in the league against the pass.