On the Vikings’ third play from scrimmage Sunday, Case Keenum took a seven-step drop out of a pistol set, took one look downfield and lofted a deep sideline throw for Adam Thielen, who had already gained a step on Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner Vernon Hargreaves.
It was all Hargreaves could do to swat at Thielen’s right arm, as the wide receiver tracked the ball over his right shoulder. The contact didn’t draw a flag, but it didn’t matter: Thielen hauled the pass in with his left arm as he slid to the ground.
“Case did a great job of just giving me an opportunity to run underneath the ball,” Thielen said. “It’s great for a receiver when you have time to adjust to a football, and obviously, it hits you in stride.”
The play came early enough in the game to likely be one of the calls the Vikings had scripted for their first series. It also served as a reminder that the reports of the demise of the Vikings vertical passing game are greatly exaggerated.
Remember last year, when the Vikings’ best way to mitigate their offensive line issues was to have Sam Bradford quickly unload what amounted to a long handoff? The 2017 Vikings, at least in the first three weeks of the season, have few traces of that.
In fact, they have gone the other way: According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings’ two quarterbacks (Bradford and Keenum) are tied for the third-most attempts of 20 yards or more in the first three weeks of the season, with 17. Their combined number of completions (10) is the second most in the NFL, trailing only Tom Brady.
“I thought [offensive coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] did a great job,” Keenum said Sunday. “Every week he does a great job communicating the game plan. For me in particular, [it’s] knowing why he’s calling plays and where he wants to take shots, where he wants to be careful with the football, and what we’re trying to do as an offensive scheme as a whole.
“I thought we were on the same page most of the night, except when I overthink things and it doesn’t work out. I thought Pat did a great job mixing up the run and the pass, run-action, play-action.”
The Vikings entered the season hopeful they could broaden their offensive repertoire beyond the diet of short throws they used so often in 2016, both because they couldn’t run the ball effectively and because the quick passes helped Bradford find a target before he was pressured.
Their chief focus in signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers this offseason was to upgrade a running game that ranked 32nd in the league a year ago.
But as the Vikings found ways to run the ball more effectively, they figured, they could also put themselves in more situations to throw deep off play action. Keenum’s 47-yard strike to Stefon Diggs in the second quarter on Sunday came out of a two-back set, after Keenum faked a handoff to Latavius Murray and hit the wide receiver on a post route beyond Buccaneers defensive back Ryan Smith.
Keenum hit seven of his 11 throws for 137 yards when he had more than 2.5 seconds to throw, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Vikings’ ability to give their quarterbacks time to throw has made the deep shots possible. The play of Diggs and Thielen — two receivers who might be underappreciated as vertical threats — has given the Vikings reason to keep looking their way.
“The more plays you make on those, the more comfortable they feel throwing them, putting those in the game plan, things like that,” Thielen said. “And [it’s] probably on the offensive line: That shows a lot of trust in them to give us a little bit of time to get downfield.”
As the Vikings have opened up their passing game, Thielen and Diggs are second and third in the NFL in receiving yards, respectively. The Vikings could have another downfield option available to them in a week, when Michael Floyd returns from a four-game suspension.
It’s still a far cry from the best days of Culpepper-to-Moss, but it’s also a significant difference from the past two seasons, when the Vikings’ quick game was their best option for keeping Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater upright. Through three games — and two quarterbacks — it’s becoming clear the label of a staid passing attack no longer fits the Vikings.
“Those guys are doing a good job making plays and catching the football,” rookie running back Dalvin Cook said. “We’ve got playmakers at wideout; we’ve just got to get the ball to them.”