Kirk Cousins says he’s trying to channel “a little edge” to his attitude on Sundays. Coordinator Kevin Stefanski met him halfway during the Vikings’ 38-20 win against the Eagles.
Stefanski outdid the freewheeling Doug Pederson, calling the Vikings’ play-action, run-oriented offense at the Eagles’ frenetic pace.
“It was an aggressive, creative game plan, and credit Kevin for the way he just kind of kept it unpredictable,” Cousins said, “with misdirection, a couple reverses. I think we were very multiple in the way we moved the ball today, and much of it was effective, and I think it was great to have positive plays on first and second down to stay in situations where we were ahead of the chains. We didn’t have many third downs.”
During two touchdown drives turning 24-20 into 38-20 in the second half, Cousins did not face a single third down in 17 plays while traveling 75 yards and 88 yards for game-sealing scores.
Those drives featured aggressive early-down play calls, an approach that also led to big touchdowns to receiver Stefon Diggs in the first half.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that play actions makes it harder on a defense, and we showed it,” Zimmer said. “I think almost all of those big plays were play actions. If they’re going to take the free safety out of the middle, you have a chance to hit some real deep ones, and if they keep him back you have the chance to hit some intermediate ones.”
1. Cousins nearly doubled his season total of big throws on early downs against the Eagles. The Vikings offense did not put on film many aggressive throws on first and second downs before Sunday, and their drastic change in approach may have caught Philadelphia off guard.
The Eagles returned cornerback Sidney Jones to the lineup, but were still without two starters — Ronald Darby and Avonte Maddox. Yet on early downs, Eagles cornerbacks didn’t receive much help over the top whether through blown assignments or ambitious coverages.
The Vikings exploited these matchups to success, fueled by a game plan that funneled the ball to Diggs and Thielen. The duo accounted for 19 of 28 targets and were involved in the passing and running game.
Early downfield shots were effective. Stefanski finally opened things up as Cousins entered Sunday with a conservative track record, having attempted just 12 passes farther than 15 yards on early downs — no more than four in one game.
Cousins threw nine early deep passes against the Eagles, including three touchdowns.
On the first snap(!) after Diggs’ 62-yard touchdown, Eagles defenders again load the box to stop Dalvin Cook.
It didn’t help Philadelphia that safety Malcolm Jenkins (#27) busted this single-deep coverage. Diggs (#14) cruises past Douglas (#32), the corner who is expecting help over the top. Jenkins jumps a shallower route off play action, leaving Diggs wide open for the 51-yard touchdown.
The Eagles also busted coverage on the opposite side, where receiver Olabisi Johnson (#81) is also open deep.
Vikings’ throws beyond 15 yards on first/second down
vs. Eagles: 9
at Giants: 3
at Bears: 1
vs. Raiders: 3
at Packers: 4
vs. Falcons: 1
While many of Cousins’ targets were running open all game, that shouldn’t overshadow his consistent and aggressive game.
Cousins gave receivers chances when the read wasn’t wide open. Facing a third-and-13 play on the opening possession, he finds Thielen for this 20-yard gain to continue a touchdown drive. The pass is thrown before Thielen crosses safety Rodney McLeod (#23).
2. The “Yankee” concept has been an effective counterpunch to defenses that keep safeties low or drop a safety in the box to stop Dalvin Cook.
The downfield route combo — a skinny post (Diggs) and a deep crossing route (Thielen) — has produced huge plays in wins against the Giants and Eagles. It was a concept used heavily in Washington by Mike Shanahan, an influence of the Vikings’ Gary Kubiak.
Thielen caught passes for 28 and 44 yards running the deep crossing route against the Giants. A week later, he draws much of the attention with safeties playing low on Diggs’ 62-yard touchdown.
The Eagles are in “quarters” coverage, given away since both safeties are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Cousins said he noticed this before the snap, tipping the to throw to Diggs. There are two more pre-snap keys for the Vikings here — personnel/formation (fullback) and tight receiver splits with Diggs (#14) and Thielen (#19) inside the numbers, used here as a fake signal for a running play.
This “Yankee” concept is effective against single-high safeties or other aggressive safety coverages, like quarters, as it makes the targeted safety decide between routes that intersect his area. Since safeties are often close to the line in quarters, the coverage is ripe for a big play to the deep skinny post.
On this play, McLeod (#23) stays flat-footed while Diggs cruises past him and corner Rasul Douglas (#32) for the touchdown.
“They’re in quarters, so you’re kind of excited before the ball is snapped,” Cousins said, “because you know that this is the kind of coverage you want for this route.”
3. Up-tempo pacing also caught the Eagles defense by surprise, helping spring Cook for his 14-yard run (game long) in the first half.
After a big play, the Vikings offense has a built in secondary call, according to Cousins. When Stefanski decides, they hurry to the line for a quick snap.
On the opening drive, Cousins hurried the offense after the 20-yard throw to Thielen. Cook took the next handoff for 14 yards. They tried again on the next series after an 18-yard catch and run by Diggs, but the ensuing Thielen run gained nothing.
In the clip below, you’ll see Eagles defenders hurry to substitute not expecting the Vikings’ no-huddle offense.
4. The Vikings defense “wanted to make sure that [Zach] Ertz didn’t have a big day,” according to Zimmer. Safety Harrison Smith again played a key role in limiting a star tight end.
Ertz had just two catches for 17 yards before the game was out of hand in the fourth quarter. He wasn’t even targeted much through three quarters. Quarterback Carson Wentz’s second throw to Ertz came at the two-minute warning of the first half, when Smith blitzed from Ertz’s side.
Otherwise Ertz’s day often looked like this. On a third-and-5 play, the Vikings run an inverted two-deep shell with safety Anthony Harris (#41) and cornerback Trae Waynes (#26) playing deep. Smith (#22) is near the line. Whether Smith covered Ertz directly or not, he often bumped the Eagles tight end before allowing him to release on a route.
Smith and Waynes effectively bracket Ertz, who isn’t looked at as Wentz throws an incompletion to his left.
5. Take a second to appreciate safety Anthony Harris, who is the reason Eagles coach Doug Pederson is a goat and not a hero for the fake field goal attempt in the first half.
Harris (#41) recognizes the direct snap to Eagles kicker Jake Elliott, and covers the only route available in tight end Dallas Goedert (#88).
Harris said he was well aware of the Eagles’ aggressive tendencies, putting him on alert for this fake with 20 seconds before halftime.