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What Minnesota wants to do on offense, and why the Vikings have struggled in the air

We look at what’s happening with Kirk Cousins

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants look to get to 3-2 this weekend when they host the Minnesota Vikings. Making the trip east is a team that is suddenly facing questions about their offensive execution. Much of the focus is on quarterback Kirk Cousins, he of the massive guaranteed contract. Here is a look at what the Minnesota offense wants to look like, and how Cousins can hold it back at times.

At their heart, the Vikings want to run the football off of wide and outside zone running plays. These designs play to the strengths of running back Dalvin Cook, including his quick burst, footwork and speed to the edge. Here is an example of what this outside zone game looks like on film:

This is a play from Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons. Facing a second-and-4 on the Atlanta 40-yard line, the Vikings line up using 13 offensive personnel and with Cousins (8) under center. Cook (33) is the running back in the game, and the Vikings have three receivers to the right who are all tight ends. Kyle Rudolph (82) aligns inline, Irv Smith (84) who aligns in the slot and Brandon Dillon (86) aligns out wide. Minnesota runs wide zone to the right side of the formation, and on this play the running back has three potential reads:

He aims for the right tackle and reads the blocking unfolding in front of him before making his decision. He can either execute his “bang” read, where he attacks the hole at his aiming point, he can execute a “bend” read where he exploits a potential cutback lane, or he can “bounce” this run and try to get outside the right end. On this play a hole opens immediately and Cook rips off a big gain.

Here is a look at this play from the end zone angle. You can see the zone blocking form up front, Cook aiming for his landmark and then exploding through the hole upfield. From there he picks up blocking from Smith and Dillon:

Having seen an example of their wide zone rushing game, we can turn to what the Vikings do in the passing game off of this basic design.

Later in this Week 1 contest the Vikings face a first-and-10 in their own territory. They align again with Cousins under center and Cook in the backfield. Adam Thielen (19) aligns in a tight alignment outside the right tackle:

This is the play-action passing concept Minnesota employs:

Coming off a run fake on an outside zone running play to Cook to the right edge, Cousins boots back to the left side. From there he has a three-level passing attack to choose from: A deep comeback route along the left sideline and a pair of crossing route working from right to left, including a shallow crosser from Thielen. Cousins sees his wide receiver matched up against a linebacker underneath, and quickly throws to his receiver in the left flat:

Here is another example of the Vikings running a three-level passing concept off of a play-action boot design. Facing a first-and-10 on their own 39-yard line, Cousins lines up under center with 12 offensive personnel in the game. He fakes a handoff to the left edge and boots back to the right, where he has this route concept to choose from:

Wide receiver Chad Beebe (12) runs an intermediate crossing route from left to right, while Thielen runs a “circle” route, bending inside before breaking back towards the boundary on an angle. The third route is a route to the flat from Smith, who makes it look like he is blocking across the formation before releasing towards the sideline.

Cousins throws to his rookie tight end in the flat, who picks up some blocking downfield:

The flag on the play is for an illegal block downfield, which reduces the amount of yardage the Vikings gain on the play, but the route design is again the key here. Building off their outside zone running game, the QB has three routes to choose from and takes his easiest throw.

Here is another example of this three-level passing concept off of play-action:

This time the Vikings have 20 offensive personnel in the game, and after making his run fake to the left Cousins boots back to the right. The route he throws is a pivot route to Thielen, who starts on the right side, shows the defense a potential slant route and then breaks back towards the right sideline to mirror his quarterback. The other two, deeper, options are an intermediate crossing route from left to right and a deep comeback route along the right sideline.

So at this point, we have seen multiple examples of the Vikings setting up this three-level read for their quarterback off of boot action. Now we can see one variation of this design they have used, and it worked in a very big way for the Vikings against the Oakland Raiders.

Facing a first-and-10 against the Raiders, Cousins lines up under center and the offense has 11 offensive personnel in the game. Thielen aligns in the slot to the left:

Cousins carries out a run fake to the right and then boots back to the left. Given what we have seen, we might expect the Vikings to give him a three-level stretch that looks something like this:

However, the Vikings have something different in mind:

Instead, Thielen works all the way across the formation, and Cousins hits him on a deep throwback for a touchdown:

Now, despite these examples not all is well with the Vikings’ offense. Both Thielen and Diggs seem to be unhappy with the state of the passing game, and Thielen expressed his frustration after Minnesota’s Week 4 loss to the Chicago Bears. Part of the problem can indeed be traced to the quarterback himself.

Back in the summer I waded into a debate over the Minnesota Vikings quarterback that was unfolding on Twitter. My conclusion was this: Some quarterbacks are bakers, and need to go right by the book or things get messy. Other quarterbacks are more chefs, and can create a bit more, improvise here and there, and still create a perfect dish. To me, Cousins is a baker, and I outlined as much in this piece for the Matt Waldman Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The bottom line: When Cousins has the answers to the question and can follow a recipe step-by-step, he can be effective. When forced to go off script a bit, that is when things fall apart.

Minnesota’s offense struggled in a Week 2 loss at Green Bay, and Cousins was a large part. He completed just 14 of 32 passes for 230 yards, with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. Looking at some of his play highlights what can happen when Cousins is forced to adjust to an ever-changing process in front of him.

Take this interception. Facing a third-and-6 on their own 44-yard line late in the second quarter, Cousins aligns in the shotgun and the Vikings empty the backfield with three receivers to the right and two to the left. The Packers have two safeties deep at varied depths:

The Vikings run two half-field concepts on this play. To the three receiver side they run a stick concept, with a pair of stick routes from the two inside receivers and a go route outside. Backside they run a dig/curl combination, with Stefon Diggs (14) on the in cut:

Cousins might expect the Packers to run Cover 2 or some variation thereof on this play, given the down-and-distance as well as the alignment of the safeties. If so, that curl/dig combination would be a good read, as the curl would occupy the underneath defenders and the dig could break open behind them. But the Packers run a combination here, showing Cover 3 buzz with rookie safety Darnell Savage (26) jumping down to the second level. They also leave a defender MEG (“man everywhere he goes”) on the go route backside as well as Diggs:

Cousins, however, looks to Diggs anyway and misses Savage jumping downhill. The rookie safety breaks on the throw and deflects the pass, which is intercepted:

If Cousins sees in time and shifts his eyes to the other side of the field, he’ll have a chance to make a play. The Vikings have a nice numbers advantage outside of the hashmark:

That image also captures perfectly Savage breaking on the football, and the other safety right in the middle of the field.

Now take a look at this play from last week against the Bears. Trailing 13-0 in the third quarter, the Vikings have the football and look to fight back into this game. They face a second-and-8 in their own territory and come out with Cousins under center and 21 personnel in the game, in an offset I formation. Thielen and Diggs align to the right:

Working off play-action, as they like to do, Minnesota gives Cousins a Mills concept to choose from. Thielen runs the dig while Diggs runs the post:

Chicago drops into a Tampa 2 coverage here, giving Cousins this look to attack:

Now, against a Tampa 2 coverage Cousins is likely checking to see if he can get Diggs to split the safeties, before reading how the middle linebacker plays this. If he is running with the post route as well, that will free up the dig route to Thielen in that spot the LB vacates. But Cousins will need to be quick with his read and decision.

As he comes out of his fake he sees this:

Cousins can see the back of the middle linebacker. At this point he needs to be thinking about cutting his drop and getting the ball out to Thielen on the dig route. This is what happens:

Cousins finishes his drop and even uses a hitch before throwing the dig route. This extra bit of time lets cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) close on the route and prevent the completion. Here is the end zone view of this play:

This is a perfect example of Cousins the baker. He is going through the steps, checking off every item on his to-do list. The fake, the drop, the hitch. If he just expands things a bit and realizes that the dig route is open, but he needs to throw it now and ignore what the “recipe” says, the Vikings can convert a big play. Instead, they’re now staring at a third-and-long.

A play where Cousins is sacked, forcing a punt.

The potential for this offense is there, but it might come down to whether they can stay on “recipe,” or not. If Cousins is forced to do more than the tasks itemized in front of him, this offense might continue to struggle.