The 2018 season has not gone how the Vikings expected. This is especially true on offense, where the results have not supported the off-season decision to give quarterback Kirk Cousins an $84 million fully guaranteed contract. Cousins has not played great, and his contract makes him an easy target, but it’s tough to solely blame him for Minnesota’s struggles. The play-calling and route concepts we’ve seen on film this year have not put the Vikings in the best position to succeed. Monday Night in Seattle proved to be no different.
The Seahawks are a predominant zone-coverage defense. In zone coverage, defenders have responsibilities they must adhere to. If they are “spot-dropping,” they drop to a spot and cover receivers entering their zone. If they are “pattern-matching,” they are matching up to receivers based on where their routes go during the play.
The way to attack zone coverage is to put defenders in conflict based on their responsibilities. Either put multiple receivers near a targeted defender’s zone if the defense tends to “spot drop,” or make it difficult for defenders to determine which route will ultimately be their responsibility if they are “pattern matching.” We showed some examples of how the Chargers were able to break down the Steelers’ zone coverage in Week 13.
Time and again on Monday Night, though, the Vikings’ route concepts did nothing to put Seattle defenders in conflict. Instead, their pass plays largely aimed to spread out the defense and let Cousins choose the route he wanted to attack. The problem here was that it was way too easy for Seahawks defenders to know which receivers and routes to cover.
This issue was particularly clear on Minnesota’s failed 4th-down attempt at Seattle’s goal line in the fourth quarter. Look at the formation and routes below – Pretty straight-forward spacing and alignment. The routes also didn’t play off each other at all.
Two fades on the outside, an in-breaking route in the slot to the left, and a stick-nod-go by tight end Kyle Rudolph in the slot to the right. Rudolph was the target on this play. The problem was that Seattle had seven defenders in coverage, and each of them knew who their responsibility was right from the snap.
Both inside routes ultimately had two defenders covering. No one was open for Cousins.
The Seahawks had played zone coverage on 3rd-and-short multiple times throughout the game, so this particular coverage should not have been a surprise. It’s hard to believe that with the game on the line, the best play Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo had on his play sheet was this one.
There is definitely a time and a place for these types of spread-it-out quick-hitting passing plays. But they can’t make up the majority of the passing attack, which they did for Minnesota on Monday Night.
The Vikings did not put enough pressure on the defense by vertically stretching the field. They rarely flooded one zone with multiple receivers. On top of that, the spacing between receivers was consistently not great, making it easy for one defender to cover multiple receivers in zone on several occasions.
Don’t get us wrong. We are not absolving Kirk Cousins of all blame here. But he is what he is – a quarterback that needs the design of the play to work to have success. This might sound like an insult, but we don’t mean it to be. Surprisingly, many NFL starting quarterbacks are not capable of consistently executing when the design of the play works. Cousins is more than capable, and this makes him a top-half-of-the-league quarterback.
But when the play doesn’t work as intended, or Cousins decides not to take what the design of the play is meant to create, or when he holds the ball too long, he runs into trouble. This has been prevalent throughout his career, and it was again on Monday night.
Take the below play. This was a play-action boot. The first read on this play is the receiver running into the flat on the play side.
Cousins absolutely has to take that throw. And in this case, the receiver in the flat was Stefon Diggs, the Vikings’ biggest play-maker in the passing game. When the design of the play works and gets your best play-maker wide open in space, you have to take it. Cousins didn’t here, and the result was a 2-yard contested completion instead of what could have been an easy 10-15 yards.
Later in the game, with the score 6-0 in the 4th quarter and the Vikings facing a 3rd-and-9, Cousins again missed a golden opportunity. You can see the routes illustrated below. This was one of the few times the Vikings dialed up a play that actually put defenders in conflict. The out-route and the corner-route (both in red) were meant to attack the circled cornerback. If he sat on the out, the read for Cousins was to throw the corner-route. If he ran with the corner-route, throw the out.
The corner looked to be dropping deep initially, taking away the corner route. At this point, Cousins should have been starting his throwing motion and targeting the out-route. Cousins was late to make his decision, though, and he had not started to throw.
This gave the corner time to react to the ball when Cousins finally did throw it, resulting in an incompletion.
The Seahawks blocked Minnesota’s field goal attempt on the very next play.
Cousins does not have the physical talent to compensate if he doesn’t stay on time and within the framework of the play. When he struggles, it can most often be attributed to this reason.
There were other factors contributing to the Vikings’ offensive struggles, both on Monday and throughout the season. There were a few plays where Cousins had an open receiver, but his offensive line failed to protect him.
Additionally, the lack of commitment to the running game is a major question mark. The Vikings have a very good defense and a talented pair of running backs in Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Those two things normally go hand-in-hand with the desire to run the ball. For some reason, this wasn’t the case on Monday, and it hasn’t been the case during 2018.
The combination of passing-game ineptitude and abandonment of the running game led to the firing of Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo. Will the Vikings now turn into the 2012 Ravens, who also fired their Offensive Coordinator after a Week 14 loss before making a run to the Vince Lombardi Trophy? The chances are good that the changes won’t make a significant difference at this point in the season. That’s why they play the game, though.