Run, run, run.
Those were coordinator Gary Kubiak’s first-down play calls on the opening series during the Vikings’ 31-23 win in Houston, the series that ended in a third-down sack and punt. An unlikely voice appeared in Kubiak’s headset at some point, encouraging him to take some shots.
Now Justin Jefferson is tied with Stefon Diggs for the most 20-yard receptions by an NFL receiver through four games, with eight.
“I told Koobs during the game, I said, ‘Go ahead and be aggressive here, don’t worry about throwing the football,'” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They were trying to load up on us to stop the run and I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to throw the ball.’”
Players appreciated Kubiak’s pivot, a first-down flurry of passes that unlocked the Vikings’ dangerous play-action game. It was the right set of circumstances against a Texans defense eager to stop Dalvin Cook with a safety in the box. With enough protection, quarterback Kirk Cousins found a much-needed rhythm, chunks of yardage and the season’s first win.
“It just shows that they can’t key in on one thing,” receiver Adam Thielen said Monday. “They can’t key in on the short passing game, they can’t key in on deep balls. We’re mixing it up and making it tough on defenses, so definitely appreciate that from the play-calling and things like that, because it definitely makes our job as receivers easier when we have the threat of going deep at any moment.”
1. Aggressive first-down play-action shots were how Cousins threw for a majority (162 of 260) of his yardage against the Texans.
Cousins is one of the NFL’s most efficient play-action quarterbacks, so it’s puzzling why Kubiak had dialed up just 18 such plays (20%) during the Vikings’ 0-3 start.
The play-action rate spiked to 50% in Houston as the Texans consistently dropped a safety into the box to stop the run. Kubiak took advantage of Cook as a threat and schemed up some high-percentage throws for Cousins on first down.
Kubiak stepped on the gas to start the second drive, when Cousins found a wide-open Jefferson on a 29-yard deep crossing route using a concept that would continually stress the Texans’ single-deep safety.
Vikings’ play-action passing in Houston
First down (9 plays): 8 of 9, 162 yards, TD
Second down (4 plays): 1 of 2, 18 yards (two sacks)
The Vikings’ double seam concepts with play-action continually stressed the Texans’ lone deep safety, Justin Reid (#20), whether Houston defended with Cover-1 (one deep zone, man-to-man underneath) or Cover-3 (three-deep zone).
Jefferson burned Cover-3 on the aforementioned 29-yard crosser in the first quarter. The Vikings came back with a similar look in the second quarter, and the Texans shifted to Cover 1 hoping their corners Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves could stick with Jefferson and Thielen.
Thielen (#19) pre-snap motion tells Cousins it’s man-to-man coverage underneath, as the corner follows him. The motion also sets up another double seam concept (two vertical routes running down middle of the field).
Jefferson’s speed and route detail stand out on this 26-yard catch, as he ‘stems’ his route inside, setting up the cornerback to think it’s a crossing route before Jefferson changes direction and accelerates around the defender.
2. Running back Dalvin Cook is the engine driving the Vikings offense, and boy he was impressive in Houston.
Cook broke 10 — 10! — tackle attempts while tying his career-high 27 carries against the Texans, according to Pro Football Focus, which notes he’s not only the NFL rushing leader with 424 yards but also leads all backs with 21 broken tackles in the run game. This is why the Vikings inked Cook to the five-year, $63 million extension last month.
But you know he’s fast, elusive and seemingly more physical than ever. Instead, let’s look at how Kubiak and the Vikings offensive coaching staff can meet Cook halfway with some schemed-open touches.
Kubiak admitted the Vikings were ‘searching for ways’ to get Cook open in the screen game, which worked so well in 2019. He only has seven catches in four games, but one of his two grabs in Houston is a glimpse of creativity of which fans should want to see more.
Below, it’s a second-and-9 play and the Vikings catch the Texans in a zone blitz, which is ideal if Cousins can get the ball out during this slip screen.
Center Garrett Bradbury (#56) is more finesse than power, and looks best on the move, which is why you should like to see this kind of design that slips him out in front of Cook (#33) for the 11-yard gain. Texans outside linebacker Jacob Martin (#54) pretends to rush, holding left tackle Riley Reiff and creating the opening up front that pressures Cousins before his quick release.
3. Kubiak’s aggression continued in the red zone, where he had called 11 runs on 13 plays before Thielen’s touchdown catch at the end of the third quarter.
It’s first-and-goal, and the Texans are expecting a 12th red-zone run by the Vikings when Kubiak calls up max protection on this play-action pass that again stresses a single-deep safety.
Jefferson (#18) runs the over route, which draws Reid (#20) away from Thielen (#19). With Thielen isolated on Roby (#21), he gives the cornerback a shoulder fake outside before cutting inside; the move leads to illegal contact on Roby, which Thielen fights through for the 9-yard touchdown.
The Texans had Roby (#21) shadowing Thielen for much of the game, and Thielen’s eight catches for a season-high 114 yards and this touchdown tell how poorly the day went for Roby.
The max protection call gives Cousins enough time in a crowded area to look off the safety to the left, turn right and find Thielen for the score.
4. Take a second to remember Cousins ran a quarterback sweep on fourth down, and converted for five yards.
This was the 10th time in Cousins’ NFL career in which he was asked to run on fourth down, according to Pro Football Reference. This was the first time he did anything other than dive up the middle on fourth-and-1.
It was a new trick for the 32-year-old Cousins, but a closer look reveals a schemed run that sent four Texans defenders in the opposite direction.
With Cook (#33) sent in motion, Cousins and Bradbury have to snap the ball just as he crosses the right side of the line, giving the look of a quick pass and screen on fourth-and-2.
The corner travels with Cook. Another three Texans defenders are occupied on the right side by the play fake. Left tackle Riley Reiff pulls and blocks the safety, Reid, while receiver Chad Beebe got enough of Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus despite carrying 75 fewer pounds.
“I think Chad Beebe had to block someone about three times his size,” Cousins said, “and he held up well and that’s what allowed me to get to the edge and get the first down.”
5. Cousins made some incredible throws, including three passes on a drive ending in Thielen’s touchdown catch. But there was more left on the field, illustrating the inconsistency that must madden Vikings coaches.
On this third-and-6 at the top of the second quarter, the Vikings could’ve jumped out to a 14-0 lead if Cousins buys time and finds Jefferson (#18) open in the corner of the end zone. Instead, he checks down to a triple-covered Thielen for three yards.
The Texans sacked Cousins with a three-man rush on the opening drive, and they bring another three-man rush in the red zone. Cook’s pre-snap motion should tell Cousins it’s man-to-man coverage, meaning Jefferson’s corner route should work if he beats the defender in front of him (the single-deep safety is immediately out out of position to cover that).
Cousins feels the pocket collapsing and dumps the ball off to Thielen, but stepping up with some patience (which might be hard to find behind this offensive line) could’ve led to a touchdown to Jefferson.