As the Vikings huddled up in the final minute of Sunday’s second quarter, set to run a play with three tight ends from the Redskins’ 2-yard line, Kyle Rudolph had a specific set of instructions for David Morgan.
So sure was Rudolph that the play — which called for Jerick McKinnon to line up in the slot and fake an end around while Morgan slipped off the line of scrimmage — would work that his only advice centered around what Morgan should do after his first NFL touchdown catch.
“Rudy’s like, ‘Hey, I want you to flatten this ball as hard as you can,’ ” Morgan said on Monday.
As fullback C.J. Ham motioned out of the backfield to a tight end spot, Redskins linebacker Will Compton started pointing at McKinnon, recognizing the play was similar to the one the Vikings had run for a 1-yard TD two weeks earlier against the Browns. Only this time, Morgan released on a route while the Redskins’ defense followed McKinnon, and stood waiting for Case Keenum to deliver the ball.
“It slowed down a lot,” Morgan said. “I knew right at the snap of the ball, it was a matter of me turning my head around and Case just dropping it on me.”
The Texas-San Antonio product, one of five different Vikings to score touchdowns Sunday, is part of an ensemble cast that’s added a layer of unpredictability to the Vikings’ offense.
The team, with 71 points in its past two games, ranks 10th in the NFL in points and ninth in yards, despite losing Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook.
The Vikings have survived those losses with impressive performances from established players such as Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s ability to expand the playbook has helped the Vikings stay ahead of defenses.
Jarius Wright’s touchdown, which came on a 7-yard screen behind blocks from Thielen and guard Joe Berger, was one of six snaps this season where the Vikings used four receivers and no tight end. Ham, who played 12 snaps Sunday, helped the Vikings extend a drive with a 3-yard gain on a 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings scored on all five of their red zone trips Sunday. Each one of their scores came out of a different personnel group.
“You just never know what you’re going to get with this offense,” Wright said. “So many guys can do so many different things, and I think that’s what actually helps us be so versatile with this offense.”
In addition to unpacking a suitcase of different personnel groups, Shurmur and wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell have trained the team’s receivers to play any spot in the offense — a departure from how the group functioned under former offensive coordinator Norv Turner. That’s helped the Vikings create more high-tempo drives — “I might get caught on this side, and I don’t have to run 50 yards to the other side of the field to be where I’m supposed to be,” Wright said last week — and it’s made the group more difficult to prepare for as a whole.
“You’ve got to do an awful lot of studying, because typically guys like to do certain things out of certain spots,” Zimmer said, when asked how receiver versatility stresses a defensive coordinator.
“Guys are out of position in one spot and out of position in another spot and then they do different things out of those areas.
“Then you’ve got to figure out all your man coverage rules and your zone coverage rules. It makes it a lot more complicated and difficult.”
Given the fact they’ve used two different starting quarterbacks, and three different starting running backs, the Vikings might have acquired some unpredictability as a silver lining from their injury issues.
But Shurmur’s playbook, culled from his upbringing in the West Coast offense and flavored with influences from his days as Chip Kelly’s offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, has incorporated enough elements that the Vikings are hard to typecast.
At 7-2 and coming off their best offensive showing, they’re reaping the rewards of their eclectic approach.
“[Shurmur’s] done a great job of incorporating a lot of different people,” Morgan said. “When you can mix things up like that, it’s hard for defenses to catch on to you.”