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What can we learn from Pat Shurmur’s NFC Championship Game performance?

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There were things to like, and not to like

NFL: JAN 21 NFC Championship Game - Vikings at Eagles Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Taking on the offensive coordinator of one of the league’s best offenses in the NFL can typically be looked at as a positive step. It’s slightly less positive when that offense puts up only seven points in a playoff game against a division rival that coach will now have to see twice per season. That’s where the New York Giants are right now with presumptive new head coach Pat Shurmur.

Shurmur orchestrated a Vikings offense that finished the season 10th in points scored and fifth in offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. But that unit averaged just 5.0 yards per play against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. The performance wasn’t all bad, though, and there were plays that should make the Giants and the fans happy to see run next season. So let’s look at some of the good and bad from Shurmur during Sunday’s game.

Good: The perfect opening drive

Coaches spend the most time game planning the early part of the game, scripting the first 15 or so play calls. Shurmur’s planned well and opening script was just about flawless. The Vikings went hard on the run early. The first five plays all went to running backs — four runs and a swing pass to Latavius Murray. That opened up a 12-yard completion to Adam Thielen on the sixth play, which was followed by two more runs, then a deep shot to the end zone. Minnesota went 75 yards on nine plays and walked away from the opening drive with a 7-0 lead.

Let’s focus on what delivered the touchdown.

With the run-heavy approach, the Vikings came out in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers). The backs were fullback C.J. Ham, who played 18 percent of the offensive snaps during the regular season, lined up to Case Keenum’s left and Jerick McKinnon, behind Keenum in shotgun.

McKinnon doesn’t stay in the backfield for long, though. He motioned out wide to the right, the side where the two wide receivers — Thielen and Stefon Diggs — were already positioned. This already shifted Philadelphia’s coverage to that side of the field and the motion initially caused some confusion among Eagles defenders. That opened up the left side of the field for Kyle Rudolph, who only had to beat a linebacker off the line.

Philadelphia had one deep safety and after McKinnon motioned out of the backfield, the safety drifted to the outside of the left hash. This was key to opening up the field for Rudolph. You can see it better from the end zone angle below. With the safety shaded to the other side, there was no one deep to defend the tight end once he got behind linebacker Najee Goode (52).

Bad: The interception

On the following drive, it took Minnesota five plays to go 14 yards. The sixth play was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Schematically, the play wasn’t all that bad. Diggs was injured on the previous play, so Laquon Treadwell was on the field as the outside receiver next to Thielen, who was in the slot to the right. Before the snap, Michael Floyd was put in motion from right to left and while safety Malcolm Jenkins shifted with him, the Eagles didn’t do much to give away coverage.

At the snap, Treadwell ran a go-route up the field while Thielen ran a corner route. The Eagles stayed in zone and cornerback Patrick Robinson stayed shallow in front of Thielen’s route and was perfectly positioned for the pick. With a good throw, there was a hole in the coverage between Robinson and Terrence Newman (23) where a play could have been made. Watch where Thielen (19) is when the ball is thrown in the below gif from the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. That’s the type of opening the Vikings want on this play.

The problem on the play was the pass rush. Defensive end Chris Long beat right tackle Rashad Hill around the edge and altered Keenum’s throw. Long got a hand in on the quarterback and Keenum couldn’t get nearly enough on the throw to reach Thielen.

Good/Bad: Running back screens

Philadelphia’s pass rush was always going to be an issue, there was little question there. The Eagles did what they do and got to the passer. By NFL’s Next Gen Stats, four of Philadelphia’s defensive linemen finished the average play closer to the quarterback than the league average (4.49 yards).

The bigger question was how the Vikings were going to scheme around it. While the Giants have attacked the Eagles rush — with some success — using quick passes, the Vikings decided to go with the running back screen. It was a play that was effective for the most part — Jerick McKinnon led the team with 11 receptions and 86 receiving yards — but implemented a little too late.

Running a screen to a back would have been the perfect way to start the next drive following the pick-6. It would have given Keenum an easy completion after the interception and taken advantage of the aggressiveness of the Philadelphia defensive line with the possibility of some chunk yardage. Instead, the Vikings started with a run on first down, one that went for six yards. On second down, Minnesota tried a play-action pass but there was pressure immediately in Keenum’s face and he overthrew Kyle Rudolph. On third down, the Eagles brought six rushers and while Keenum had some room to maneuver in the pocket, the threat of pressure up the middle caused him to get rid of the ball quickly to Diggs, who was barely at the line of scrimmage and tackled immediately.

Minnesota punted after a three-and-out.

Good: The slot wheel

We brought this up briefly in last week’s recap of the divisional games — the slot wheel has taken over. The wheel route is an outstanding tool for a running back out of the backfield. It can be even more dynamic when run out of the slot by a back or wide receiver. When executed correctly — which it almost always is — it isolates the receiver downfield with at least a step on the defender. The initial looping action of the route gets the defender moving horizontally before the receiver turns upfield. It’s quickly become one of my favorite routes.

Minnesota ran a version midway through the second quarter with Stefon Diggs. Thielen ran a go-route to clear the sideline and Diggs had to shift in order to step out of the way of the zone defender in front of him, but it resulted in an open play for 22 yards.

Bad: Pass protection on the forced fumble

That Minnesota drive in the second quarter was moving down the field. The Vikings got to Philadelphia’s 14 yard line and at that time they trailed just 14-7. But a forced fumble on a strip sack gave the ball back to the Eagles and kept points off the board for Minnesota.

The main cause for the strip sack was a missed block by tight end David Morgan (89). Morgan is the team’s blocking tight end and on this play, he was asked to cross the formation to block rookie defensive end Derek Barnett. He whiffed, badly. Barnett got a free path to the quarterback and knocked the ball loose.

It’s a big ask for a tight end and the protection scheme was immediately questioned. However, this isn’t just a new wrinkle Shurmur decided to thrown in during a big game. Nelson has been tasked with some of the most difficult blocking assignments for a tight end in the league and many times they work. Look at the clip below from Minnesota’s game against the New Orleans Saints. Nelson executes a block similar to what he was tasked to do on the fumble. This time it’s on a run play, but the defender is Cameron Jordan, a much tougher assignment than the rookie Barnett. Nelson got the block and opened up a huge hole for a big gain.

This probably won’t be a concept Shurmur takes with him to New York without a player of Morgan’s caliber blocking.

Good: Hi-Lo concepts

After the fumble, the Eagles scored and the game quickly got out of hand. The deficit went from 21-7 to 24-7 at the half and after the first drive of the third quarter, it was 31-7 with Minnesota only getting the ball once between those three scores. That shifted the Vikings game plan from what they wanted to do to what they had to do. With the aggressiveness of the Eagles defense forcing the Vikings into obvious passing situations, it wasn’t an easy task.

There was one play, though, midway through the third quarter that should be noted. It was first-and-10 just shy of midfield. Minnesota came out in 11 personnel with Diggs and Jarius Wright stacked to the right and Thielen isolated to the left. Even though the Vikings were down 31-7, they ran a play action pass and it worked — all three linebackers took a first step in before backing up into coverage.

The two receivers from the right side ran crossing routes at different depths while Thielen ran a deep post to clear his cornerback from the sideline. Between the play-action bit and the two receivers running the same direction, Philadelphia’s defenders were confused and allowed Wright to be wide open for a 33-yard gain.

Minnesota ran a version of the Hi-Lo concept, an old staple of the Andy Reid playbook, who Shurmur coached under in Philadelphia as a quarterbacks coach from 2002-2008. The routes that flood the same side of the field on different levels can be run against both man and zone coverages and on this play, Wright’s deep cross beats the zone.

Here’s a very amateur illustration of the play:

Takeaways

If the thought of Shurmur as a head coach was exciting, this game shouldn’t change that. There were a few mistakes that turned into big point swings. It also didn’t help the Vikings defense had one of their worst showings and Nick Foles turned into something that was well beyond what Nick Foles should be capable of doing.

Shurmur is going to bring offensive concepts that should open up new possibilities for the Giants. This game doesn’t make those less valuable. This isn’t an ideal game as the last look before he’s announced as the new head coach, but what short of the Super Bowl would be? There are going to be many questions that follow Shurmur as he takes his new gig, but Minnesota’s performance in the NFC Championship Game shouldn’t be among the most pressing.