Looking at a passing attack that bottomed out just two weeks ago in Chicago, the Minnesota Vikings and Kirk Cousins sure righted things in a heartbeat.
Since then, squeaky wheels Adam Thielen (13 catches, 187 yards, three TDs) and Stefon Diggs (10-211-3) have gotten ample grease, while Cousins (44 of 56, 639 yards, six TDs, one INT) has thrived.
The Vikings (4-2) didn’t need many changes to outclass the New York Giants last week, but they opened things up Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, knowing the run game alone was not enough.
Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and adviser Gary Kubiak’s offense is extremely sharply designed.
The run game includes Kubiak’s core zone concepts but also timely changeups (lead draw, crack toss, counter). The pass game incorporates myriad designer deep shots — via play-action or pure double moves — and a litany of screens to spring backs, wideouts and tight ends loose.
All were employed Sunday, catering heavily to Thielen and Diggs early to placate any lingering frustrations. Stefanski used both wideouts early on quick screens, exotic runs (reverse handoff for Diggs, reverse toss for Thielen), double moves and “shot” plays off play-action. He even called a double-reverse pass for Diggs.
After Thielen’s out-and-up, 6-yard TD capped the first drive, the third possession ended with Diggs’ 62-yard touchdown on a classic Kubiak deep shot.
The Vikings ran a Yankee concept off play-action against the Eagles’ Cover-4 (aka quarters). From the right slot, Thielen ran a deep over route toward safety Rodney McLeod. From the left, Diggs’ skinny post perfectly bisected the quarter-field zones of cornerback Rasul Douglas (outside) and McLeod (inside). Thielen drew McLeod, leaving Douglas alone on Diggs and chasing from an outside position. Cousins’ perfect throw sealed an easy touchdown.
(You might recognize the design from Super Bowl LIII. The Rams ran it twice vs. the Patriots and sprung the post open both times, but Jared Goff failed to take advantage, with Jason McCourty famously intervening on the second.)
Minnesota barely missed another long touchdown on a similar, shrewd design just before half. Diggs ran the same skinny post from the left, again facing Douglas’ outside leverage (this time in Cover-3), but was sprung open differently.
Knowing Eagles coordinator Jim Schwartz’s Cover-3 rules, the Vikings ran Thielen in orbit motion from right to left after the snap, drawing McLeod down from the deep middle to meet Thielen. Cornerback Sidney Jones — initially aligned over Thielen — had to drop to centerfield to “replace” McLeod, but he retreated too slowly to meet Diggs. Cousins narrowly overthrew it (and Diggs didn’t dive).
After halftime, Stefanski piled on. Diggs’ double moves produced a pass-interference flag (out-and-up) and an 11-yard TD (stick-nod). Minnesota also hit a few more play-action designs, including a perfect post/wheel concept to rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. that gained 29.
Many big gains Sunday required minimal processing, as the design opened the primary route, but nonetheless, Cousins hit most throws. His worst miss was putting too much air under a corner route to Thielen, narrowly missing a 21-yard touchdown on third-and-8.
More importantly, Cousins showed the willing trigger he lacked early in the season, nailing a few tight-window throws while trusting his receivers.
That included a 20-yarder with anticipation to Thielen to convert third-and-13, two rockets near the sideline while rolling right (Diggs dropped one that turned into an interception) and a bullet to Laquon Treadwell on the left sideline while falling away on fourth-and-5.
An aggressive Cousins brings turnover risk, but he’s far more effective than the tepid Cousins who simply tries to avoid mistakes. With quality wideouts and a sound scheme, Cousins must keep turning it loose.
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Diggs’ 51-yard touchdown yet. That’s because it was an uncommonly poor coverage bust, not the offense’s doing.
The whole Eagles’ defense played Cover-3 except both cornerbacks, who somehow got the same incorrect call. Both played Cover-2, rerouting and passing off perimeter go routes to ... nobody. Cousins had his choice of walk-in touchdowns. That sort of bust is extremely rare, the kind of luck Minnesota can’t count on again.
The Eagles weren’t busting coverages all day, but they made several mistakes and were easily suckered into the Vikings’ traps. Philadelphia also struggled to get pressure (one sack, four QB hits), which was a mild surprise.
The sailing won’t always be so smooth. Game script has defined the Vikings so far and did again Sunday, with the early lead aiding the run and play-action game. That shelters Cousins and the offensive line, which is better run-blocking than in protection.
The Vikings’ infrastructure — namely defense, skill-position talent and coaching — mostly prevents big deficits, but we’ll learn more about this offense the next time Minnesota trails early.
—By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media