Simplify was the edict circulated around Vikings headquarters leading into interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s play-calling debut.
It worked against an inferior opponent during Sunday’s 41-17 win against the Dolphins.
“We ran like one play 10 times but with 10 different variations, so sometimes that’s what it is, too,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “You format it differently and you get them in different looks so they can’t key on one thing, but you’re basically running the same play.”
The Vikings’ run game, which churned out a season-high 220 yards, was spectacular in its effectiveness and execution, if not design. Inside zone run after inside zone run was followed by an outside zone stretch left and stretch right. The Dolphins’ 31st-ranked run defense was just what they needed.
Let’s take a look at the relevant takeaways from Sunday’s win heading into this weekend’s trip to Detroit.
“We’re going to have to go out and do it again,” Zimmer said. “Detroit will be harder to run against than Miami was.”
1. Pressure report: Kirk Cousins entered Week 15 as the NFL’s highest-volume passer, who also had the most pressured dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. So, it’s no coincidence Cousins was pressured on just eight passes by the Dolphins because the Vikings limited him to 25 dropbacks — fewer than all quarterbacks except two (Marcus Mariota, Mike Glennon) last week.
One of the Vikings’ biggest adjustments under Stefanski was to get Cousins on the move and away from the pass rush. His first three passes came from play-action (from which he was 6 of 7 for 103 yards). Bootlegs, rollouts and moving pockets meant the Vikings didn’t test pass protection much. Even many shotgun snaps (6 of 12 for 90 yards, a touchdown and interception) turned into quick throws like receiver screens or the 20-yard go route to tight end Tyler Conklin. Cousins’ 2.45 seconds per throw were faster than his season average of 2.51 seconds.
Dolphins end Robert Quinn was unblocked on the backside of a play-action bootleg when he sacked Cousins the first time. Left tackle Riley Reiff surrendered the initial pressure and left guard Tom Compton gave up the second sack by Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux.
2. Unchecked yardage: How unprecedented was this rushing day for the 2018 Vikings? A whopping 70 percent of rushing yards came before contact. That’s 149 rushing yards before Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray or Stefon Diggs were touched by a defender. Most of it came from Cook, who ran on another level Sunday.
Cook fielded questions about whether the increased under-center snaps gave him a better spot from which to run. But really, you and I could’ve hit a couple of the holes leading to his career-high 136 rushing yards. Even Diggs’ 9-yard jet sweep didn’t find any Dolphins contact until he was tackled.
Center Pat Elflein and right guard Mike Remmers had strong rebounds, starting with Remmers’ block on Dolphins rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick to spring Cook for the 27-yard screen. The right side of the line was particularly impressive on Cook’s 11-yard run on the next drive. We’ll break it down below.
3. Anatomy of a play: First, this 26-yard run by Cook showed how the Vikings finally took advantage of all that attention paid to Thielen and Diggs.
It’s 2nd-and-9 on the opening drive. Look below and you’ll see two deep Dolphins safeties over each side of Diggs and Thielen. That leaves a six-man box for six Vikings blockers. Also keep an eye on tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has a key block on Quinn to open a cutback lane.
Zimmer noted how the Dolphins liked to align Quinn very wide in assumed passing situations (like 2nd-and-9). So Rudolph aptly turns on his heels to start the block in this video below. Reiff lets the D-tackle’s momentum take him out of the play, Compton gets to the backside linebacker and Cook goes 26 yards untouched before he’s tackled.
Even against a 7-man front, like this 1st-and-10 play below, the Vikings found success on the run. The keys to this 11-yard run come between Remmers and right tackle Brian O’Neill, who executes a tough reach block. O’Neill’s athleticism is the biggest upgrade with him in the lineup, and it allows him to get in the way on blocks like this.
Speaking of repetition in play calling, this 11-yard inside zone run was nearly the exact same design as the 26-yard run above. The different wrinkle is Thielen motioning inside. But on both plays, Cousins turns to the 2-receiver side with Diggs mimicking a receiver screen to freeze the secondary defenders.
Look at the video below. Remmers puts Dolphins defensive tackle Sylvester Williams on skates. O’Neill’s successful reach block creates the massive opening up the middle for 11 yards.
4. Better up-tempo timing: The Vikings better utilized another wrinkle under Stefanski than they did with John DeFilippo. The 13-yard touchdown pass to Diggs on the opening drive came in a flash, because Cousins snapped the ball with 27 seconds left on the play clock. It wasn’t a no-huddle, hurry-up drive, but that sneaky use of up-tempo timing helped catch defenders out of position and thinking too much to properly defend the play-action pass.
Cousins picked up the pace on other big plays, including his 40-yard touchdown throw to Aldrick Robinson. The ball snapped with 12 seconds left on the play clock, but happened in just 3-4 seconds after they broke huddle and aligned.
5. Short-yardage struggles? They were perfect. The Vikings offense went 5 for 5 on short-yardage plays against the Dolphins, including a pair of 2nd-and-1 quarterback sneaks and three successful third downs.
Stefanski’s play call that got the most praise by Vikings players was the 3rd-and-1 shot to tight end Tyler Conklin for 33 yards. Back-to-back runs fed into the play call at the end of the third quarter, when Cousins faked a handoff on third down and found Conklin wide open.
“That’s a hell of a call by coach Stefanski,” Conklin said. “It shows confidence in not just me but the tight ends as a whole. When you run the ball that well and play-action on third-and-1, you’ve got to respect it.”