The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
One popular topic of conversation this offseason was whether the Vikings could successfully pair together Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson in the shotgun in 2016. Now, in early October after a twist of fate — or the unfortunate twist of a couple of knees — the Vikings offense has been at its best with Sam Bradford and Jerick McKinnon in that formation.
Yes, the biggest weapon for the suddenly-formidable Vikings offense in a third straight win by doubt digits was the shotgun spread, a chunk of the playbook that was underutilized with a certain All-Pro in the backfield.
Bradford, their new quarterback, lined up in the shotgun on their first four plays yesterday, including a pair of 1st-and-10s. After a couple of runs from under center, Bradford completed a 23-yard out route to Adam Thielen and then a 36-yard bomb to the wide receiver, both out of the gun.
Bradford barely had time to sip on some Gatorade before the offense was back on the field after a Texans three-and-out. It was more of the same on the second drive, with four straight plays from the shotgun during the scoring drive and five in all before a shotgun run by McKinnon, their speedy new starter, got the Vikings to the 2-yard line.
Ever after getting up 24-zip early in the second quarter, the Vikings continued to put Bradford in the shotgun throughout the rest of the game. In all, they used the shotgun on 15 first-down plays. Last year, first down usually meant an under-center handoff to Peterson.
But with Peterson out indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of the season, the Vikings have changed their offensive approach. Instead of putting their quarterback under center and mixing deep-drop play-action passes with the between-the-tackle runs by Peterson, the Vikings have found success by using a shotgun spread attack that stretches opposing defenses.
“It just forces the defense to spread out a little bit,” McKinnon said before hitting the showers. “It’s up to the play-caller whether we use it more. But obviously Coach Turner thinks it’s a good mix-up for us.”
Coach Mike Zimmer is rightfully getting credit for what might be the best defense in the NFL. And special teams coordinator Mike Priefer continues to find ways to produce difference-making plays in that phase. But offensive coordinator Norv Turner also deserves credit for being flexible and finding ways to best put his healthy players in position to succeed.
The shift in philosophy occurred before the Panthers game, when after a slow start that day Bradford and the Peterson-less Vikings offense finally found a groove. It carried over into the decisive victories over the Giants and Texans, during which the offense wasn’t just along for the ride.
“[Losing Peterson] changed things a little bit,” Bradford, who threw for 271 yards and a pair of touchdowns yesterday, acknowledged. “I think you’ve seen more spread from us. I think you’ve seen some of the gun runs, more of the quick-game passing attack from the shotgun. I think that’s a little bit different than what the offense has done in the past.”
All six of Bradford’s touchdown passes have come from the gun. And during the first two touchdown drives yesterday, McKinnon popped a pair of 8-yard runs out of the shotgun and also had gains of 5 and 4. He finished with 36 yards, though, as the offensive line was back to struggling.
Peterson, meanwhile, has averaged 3.8 yards on shotgun runs during his career. His inability to get comfortable in the gun, a story line since returning from his NFL suspension that cost him most of the 2014 season, along with his struggles in both pass-catching and pass protection, led to a predictable, perhaps outdated offense built around the $12-million man.
The past three weeks, we have seen a lot of creativity from Turner, who during his first two years with the Vikings seemed to be a bit stubborn.
“I think so,” McKinnon said, agreeing with that first part. “Being able to have that balance between going under center and being in the shotgun, and using different personnel, it’s a way to give us an advantage and use the guys that we have. We have a lot of talent on this team, a lot of talent at the receiving spot, and it gives us a chance to get them all involved.”
Wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, still unpolished but still a threat to score every time he touches the ball, is again being featured. The Vikings are catching teams off guard by sprinting up to the line after chunk plays.
And they continue to use read-option plays with McKinnon, who was a triple-option QB in college, as the trigger man and Patterson in the backfield with him. The results on those runs haven’t been great, in part because McKinnon is still getting a feel for when to keep it and when to give.
And maybe, just maybe, McKinnon will get to show off his arm soon.
“Pfffffffft. I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said, perhaps playing coy.
Zimmer said after yesterday’s 31-13 win that the uptick in shotgun usage in recent games was based solely on “the defense we were playing.” But the second half of the 2014 season, with Peterson still suspended and the Vikings catering to their then-rookie quarterback, Bridgewater, suggests that this is going to be more than a couple-week deal.
Zimmer has said that perhaps the biggest football lesson he learned from his late father, Bill, who was a longtime high-school coach in Illinois, was that he always needed to ask himself, “How can I win with this team?” In this case, with Peterson on the shelf, the shotgun spread is the way to go.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. With Stefon Diggs out with a groin injury, Thielen became the team’s top wide receiver, playing 68 of 74 offensive snaps and leading the Vikings with seven catches for a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown. Patterson and Jarius Wright, who had been used sparingly this season, were usually the ones who joined Thielen in three-wide sets, playing 45 and 44 snaps, respectively. Charles Johnson played 12 snaps and Laquon Treadwell, who is still looking for his first NFL catch, played eight, a career high.
2. Zac Kerin, a third-year lineman, got the first extended playing time of his career, playing 66 snaps after starting right guard Brandon Fusco was knocked out of the game with a concussion during the opening drive.
3. Starting right end Everson Griffen was a busy man, playing 62 of 64 defensive snaps in a game the Vikings won by 18 points. Left end Brian Robison was second amongst defensive linemen with 55 snaps. Backup end Danielle Hunter still played more than half of the time with 38 snaps on defense. That has been the trend all season, with the two veterans logging over 80 percent of the snaps but Hunter still being used on over 50 percent, too. As for the defensive tackles, Tom Johnson had 39 snaps while Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen had 38 and 22, respectively.
4. For the second straight week, fullback Zach Line had a significant role, playing 27 snaps with Rhett Ellison and David Morgan out against the Texans and fellow tight end MyCole Pruitt suffering a knee injury after playing only 10 snaps. That’s 51 snaps the past two games for Line.
5. Veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway played only seven snaps and was on the field for just nine the past two games combined as both the Giants and Texans used three-wide sets almost exclusively. Fellow linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks played every snap on D.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “We have good players. And they do things right. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a big secret. I’m probably the one that underestimates them the most. Each week, when we go in to game plan, I’m the most miserable person in the world trying to figure out how to stop a team. They go out and they perform.” — Zimmer on the weekly consistency of his defense after the stingy Vikings held another opponent to 17 points or fewer.
2. “That is Sherels. As you saw, he didn’t celebrate or nothing and just walked back to the sideline. We were joking with him at the end of the game when they had the camera on him and he looked away. He does not want all the attention. He is just a player.” — Captain Munnerlyn on fellow corner Marcus Sherels, who his second punt return TD of 2016.
3. “They did what they’ve been doing all year — winning. They made plays. They did what they wanted to do. That’s twice that we’ve faced an elite team and we didn’t look good.” — Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was referring to the Patriots while giving praise to the Vikings offense.
4. “The noise is coming from sheer excitement, and I think every time it has been a little noisy for us is after a big play. … So that is going to happen. We are OK with that. A little bit of noise is all right.” — tight end Kyle Rudolph, who does not want Vikings fans to shut the bleep up.
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. The Vikings defense has become so dominant, yesterday’s game seemed ho-hum. The Vikings sacked Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler four times, picked him off once and limited the Texans to 3.4 yards per pass play when factoring in sacks. The Vikings offense’s fast start pretty much took the Texans running the ball often out of the equation, but when speedy Texans back Lamar Miller did get the ball, he averaged 2.5 yards per run. Their leading receiver was not Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins or speedy rookie Will Fuller. It was C.J. Fiedorowicz, a tight end you’ve probably never heard of. While Osweiler remains a 6-foot-7 question mark, the Texans have a few playmakers. And the Vikings seemingly shut them down with ease. They have wrecked some good offenses the past few weeks. It’s going to be fun to watch them beat up on some bad ones.
2. Slot receiver Jarius Wright showed why he needs to be active on game day. Wright, the oldest and most experienced member of his position group, was a healthy scratch in three of the first four games this season and was used sparingly in the one game he did play. But with Diggs, who has snagged many of Wright’s snaps in the slot, out with his groin injury, the Vikings got the reliable route-runner back in the mix. His stat line of four catches for 32 yards won’t pop out of the box score. But he gave us a reminder of what he can do on their field-goal drive that made it 17-0. On third-and-6, Bradford got popped in a hurry. But Wright was able to quickly gain separation and move the chains with a 10-yard catch and run. Later in the drive, he delivered again on third-and-7. Wright is no longer one of the team’s top two or three wideouts, but he can still help.
3. The early bye week is coming at a good time for the banged-up Vikings. Typically, when you have Super Bowl aspirations, you would like the bye to be later than sooner for some mid-season battery charging. But the Vikings are welcoming the Week 6 bye. While Peterson and left tackle Matt Kalil are on injured reserve and only one can theoretically return in the season’s second half, the next couple of weeks could help the Vikings get a few regulars back. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd hasn’t yet practiced after last month’s knee surgery, but the hope is he will be back in pads after the bye week. We’ll see about right tackle Andre Smith, who sat out yesterday with a potentially major triceps injury and will be re-evaluated early this week. At the very least, it looks like the Vikings should have Fusco and Diggs back when their season resumes Oct. 23 in Philadelphia.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. With all the injuries on the offensive line, what will the team look to do, internally and externally, during the bye week to give that unit a boost?
2. What’s the first bottle of wine the coach will pop open during the bye?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. The Vikings — now down their starting quarterback, the league’s leading rusher from 2015, their top wide receiver, their top two offensive tackles and one of their starting defensive tackles — are the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team at 5-0 after the Broncos and Eagles both lost yesterday. Even if this team doesn’t go all the way, this is a pretty special group.