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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Vikings Offense; Cousins is no Minshew

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Overview

On September 20th, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Minnesota Vikings. In this Week 2 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

All time our Colts have a 17-7-1 record against the Vikings. All things considered that’s a pretty solid record. The last time the Colts lost to the Vikings was back in December of 1997. Jim Harbaugh wasn’t known for wearing khakis, Bill Polian was employed by the Carolina Panthers and Peyton Manning had yet to star in a single commercial. Those days are long gone and in the four years it’s been since our Colts beat the Vikings 34 to 6, almost nothing in the NFL is the same.

Let’s see what we can expect in week two.


Offensive Scheme

Vikings offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, is something of an offensive genius. Kube’s was a part of the legendary quarterback draft of 1983, which saw John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino drafted all in the same year. Kubiak didn’t have the same legendary career as a quarterback as those guys but being drafted by the Broncos meant he would serve as John Elway’s backup from 1983 to 1991.

By 1995 Kube’s was named offensive coordinator of those same Denver Broncos, now instead of backing up Elway, he was calling his plays. In 2006, after winning a couple of Super Bowls with a 94 year old Elway and Terrell Davis in the middle of two of the best years a running back has ever had, he was named head coach of the Houston Texans. Colts fans probably all have memories of watching Arian Foster gash those Indy defenses with multiple long runs, created by Kubiak’s zone run system. Well it’s not really his system, former Broncos offensive line coach Alex Gibbs is the one who modernized and popularized it’s use and Kubiak benefited greatly.

After his run with the Texans he spent a year as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore before being hired by the Broncos to fill their head coaching vacancy. Kubiak teamed up with Peyton Manning and maybe the best defense of the last decade to bring home a super bowl win in 2015. After a 9-7 2016 season Kubiak “retired” citing health reasons. In January of 2019, after a weird dust-up with the Broncos organization, Kubiak agreed to become the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.

I know what you’re thinking “Enough with the history lesson, what are the Vikings going to do?” I get that but Kubiak’s history as a player and coach is exactly what the Vikings are going to do. At his core, Kubiak’s West Coast offense lives on the back of play action, boot legs and zone runs. In week one the Colts saw Jay Gruden’s WCO system but despite their similarity, the Vikings offense will look much different this week.

Last season the Vikings squared off against the Dallas Cowboys in week 10. The Cowboys defensive system is very similar to our Colts’ so I took a hard look at what we can expect to see this weekend.


Interesting Run Design

This isn’t something I saw a lot of, but it was interesting enough to warrant including it here. If nothing else it shows just how dedicated the Vikings are to getting the run game going in any way they can.

Play Action Screen

This play would work to set up other plays off of it. The Vikings love to use play action and here they use it effectively to set up a screen. It’s not something you’ll see all 32 teams do and even though we’ll talk about the offensive line more in a bit, these guys show off their ability by making this play work.

Max Protect

On this one the Vikings end up with seven guys in to block for Kirk Cousins. With a better pass this would have been a nice completion to a wide out for a big gain. Once again the play action made this play work, it gave Cousins time in the pocket and it pulled the linebackers towards the line giving the QB an even bigger window to throw in to.

What’s really interesting about Kubiak’s offense is how they used this incomplete play action pass to set up another play action screen.

PA Screen Part 2

The play action completely destroys any hope the linebackers have to make a play on this down. First they flow hard to stop the potential run, then when they realize it’s a pass they realize they have to get back to their spot to make sure Kirk Cousins doesn’t have a wide open receiver or tight end in the zone they left chasing a running back without the ball.

What results is a big gain from Dalvin Cook.

The Vikings play action works to set up more play action which all works with the running game. In some ways it reminds me of the wishbone offense of football’s past. This offense is based, almost completely, on misdirection.

Great Design

All 32 teams have some version of this route from the tight end included in their playbook. Even still I get excited when I see it used. To start there is an element of misdirection, using motion, feigning the block, working to the opposite side of the field before getting vertical. It’s just a fun route.

Yes, I realize this probably isn’t something most people get excited about. No, I don’t care.

Once again this play was set up by the play action. Cousins misses this throw (you should soon start to see a pattern) but the play was there.

More Bootlegs

Cousins rolls out and finds a receiver who sat down in his route knowing the linebacker didn’t know where he was. The most interesting part is that this play worked to set up the very next play.

The Very Next Play

It’s the pitch they faked on the play before, just to the opposite side and they actually pitch it this time which results in a big gain. Dalvin Cook is a great fit in this offense in both the run and passing game.

In the games I watched when the Vikings got some momentum going in the run game, they rode that horse until it broke.

During the final drive of the 3rd quarter the Vikings found success running the ball 10 times in a row which finished with a 2 yard touchdown run. They ripped off several 6-12 yard runs but they also didn’t go away from the run after they had runs of 3, 1 and -1 they just lined up and called another run.

The 10th Called Run

They really like to run the ball.

Seriously

This was at the end of six straight runs.

Their Commitment To The Ground Is Confusing

Those numbers were bolstered by several checkdowns and one chunk play late in the 3rd quarter.

Time For Charts

Normally I’m not much of a chart guy. I like watching film and forming my opinions that way. That said, after watching my Vikings film for the week, I came across the above chart on Twitter thanks to Rotoworld’s Hayden Winks.

This chart helped me confirm what I saw on tape; the Vikings love to run the ball as much as they reasonably can. 2020 obviously provides us with a small sample size but thus far, their offense is downright predictable.

2019 Numbers

In 2019 only the Baltimore Ravens ran the ball more than the Vikings. In the modern NFL it seems strange to run more than you pass but the Vikings ran the ball 51% of the time in 2019.

A Little Different

In one game this season the Vikings are running the ball almost 77% of the time in neutral situations. In 2019 they only ran the ball 46% of the time, which is interesting as it’s a five point swing from their total average for last year. Obviously this has to mean they ran the ball a lot more when winning or losing.

Ah, Here It Is

In all of 2019 when the Vikings were playing with the lead they ran the ball 64% of the time. Only the Titans ran it more when playing with a lead.

Big Jump

On the other hand the Vikings only ran the ball 28% of the time when losing. From 64% to 28% based on being ahead or behind is a massive jump and lends itself to being able to quickly identify what the offense is likely to do.

The Biggest Jump

As a matter of fact, it was the biggest jump in the NFL a season ago.

All of this points to an offense that is actually pretty predictable. If the Vikings are winning, they’re going to run the ball a lot. If they’re losing, they’re going to throw the ball a lot and if the game is neutral they were pretty balanced a year ago but through one week this season have been heavily slanted toward the ground game.

The Vikings offense isn’t this vast barrage of unpredictability, instead it’s a system built on misdirection via the play action pass, an effective running game and relying on using specific plays to set up other plays later in the game. As long as the players can execute the plays as designed, the system doesn’t have to be unpredictable to work. So the question becomes do the Vikings have the horses to make this offense go?


Quarterback:

Kirk Cousins signed a fully guaranteed three year, $84 million contract as a free agent with the Vikings in 2018. This past off season he signed a two year $66 million extension. No matter how you cut it, that’s a lot of cash to throw at anyone. So the question a lot of people will ask is, is he worth it?

With Cousins at quarterback the Vikings are 18-13-1. They made the divisional round of the 2019 playoffs, losing to the San Francisco 49ers. His raw numbers fell from 2018 to 2019 but the team won two more games.

So is Kirk Cousins worth it? The answer isn’t an easy one. I’ll have more thoughts at the end of this section but for now I’ll just say; maybe.

On The Move

To me the most surprising part of Cousins’ game was how effective he is throwing on the move, specifically outside of the pocket. I would argue he’s a far better quarterback doing this than when he’s asked to stay in the pocket and make reads like a traditional drop back passer.

This play highlights another part of Cousins’ game that isn’t great; he’s been bailed out by his receivers and tight ends, like a lot.

A quick note on Cousins’ athletic ability, I don’t have any clips of it here but Cousins isn’t afraid to pickup chunks of yards with his legs. He isn’t the most fluid mover in space but he is awkwardly quick and is pretty good choosing when to scramble.

Overthrown

In most situations I would give the quarterback the benefit of the doubt on a play like this. It’s basically a throwaway in scoring position while playing with a 17 to 14 lead. It’s safe. With that said given the rate of inaccurate downfield passes Kirk Cousins throws, I don’t think he meant to put this ball as far out of bounds as it went.

This isn’t my finest clip, so it’s tough to tell but the ball lands probably five yards out of bounds. No one had a chance to catch this one.

This Is Where He Excels

This doesn’t appear to be a designed roll out. Instead Cousins instinctively rolls out, extends the play and gives his receiver an extra second to get open. By rolling out he also made this deep out a much easier throw. Cousins’ arm strength is good but if you can shorten a deep out from the opposite hash, it’s a good idea for 31 NFL starting quarterbacks.

Extending Plays

This play shows another example of Cousins’ ability to avoid pressure, keep his eyes down field and deliver a good ball while on the move.

Cousins Accuracy

This was Kirk Cousins fourth and final attempt of the first half. Yes, you read that correctly, the Vikings only threw the ball four times in the first half in week one against the Green Bay Packers. But that’s a different story.

This throw, and so many throws like it, are the reason I’m hesitant to say that Kirk Cousins is hands down worth the investment the Vikings have made in him. I’ve shown you several clips of Cousins at his best; on the move, rolling out. But when asked to drop back and throw down field he’s one of the least consistent “good” starters I’ve watched.

There are times (scroll down to the section on pass catchers if you want to see them) that Cousins will put a deep ball on the money. However, the majority of the time if the ball is thrown more than 10 yards it’s an inaccurate ball.

Kirk Cousins can really deal if you ask him throw 5-10 yard routes. Beyond that he’s shaky at best. In the past, more often than not, his good receivers often went up and made plays on balls he missed. The Vikings roster is different now than it was a season ago, it remains to be seen if his receivers can continue to bail out their quarterback on those deep, poorly thrown, passes.


Running Back:

I’m sure by now you know Dalvin Cook’s name. The Vikings selected him with the 41st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Cook’s first two seasons were drastically shortened due to injury but 2019 saw him play in 14 games, rushing for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns on 250 carries. Last season Cook was finally able to stay healthy long enough to produce the way many believed he would be able to.

Cook is very good but there’s another back in Minnesota that will have an impact on Sunday. Alexander Mattison is a second year player out of Boise State. The Vikings used a third round pick to draft him, which makes sense as their starting running back (Cook) had missed 17 games in his first two seasons.

Mattison rushed 100 times for 462 yards in his rookie season. Watching him on tape, if Cook were to go down, Mattison looks as if he would easily be able to handle a bigger workload. His talent is evident and given the opportunity, I predict would produce at a similar level.

In short the Vikings are positioned very well at tailback.

Burst

This play shows Dalvin Cook’s burst through the hole, his vision reading blocks and his ability to anticipate where defenders and blockers will be before he gets to them. You also see a little of his balance through contact as he bounces of a glancing blow from a defensive back toward the end of this run.

Cut Behind The Line

Here Cook shows his excellent change of direction ability as well as his vision and ability to once again maintain balance through contact. Dalvin Cook is the perfect back for the Vikings zone blocking scheme.

In a lot of ways watching him reminds me of Edgerrin James. He’s highly talented and in a system that has provided lesser backs with highly productive careers. If Cook can stay healthy and hold off his very talented back up, the numbers he will put up in Minnesota over the next couple of seasons will just be silly.


Pass Catchers:

The 2019 Vikings overcame more than just your average, run of the mill, football season. They overcame a full on Stefon Diggs temper tantrum. So they did what any reasonable franchise did and traded him to Buffalo where they play games outside in December, seemingly as punishment.

With Diggs on to non-domed winters, the Vikings brought back Adam Thielen, Olabisi Johnson, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin. The VIkings also drafted former LSU star Justin Jefferson in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft to help fill the void left by the moody departure by Diggs.

Thielen should be considered their most dangerous receiver at this point even if Jefferson has the most potential. Olabisi Johnson beat the odds as a seventh round pick who made the team and is having a real impact on game day. Week one saw him haul in three catches for 56 yards on four targets.

Kyle Rudolph has been a constant at tight end for Minnesota for nearly a decade. Last year his numbers took a hit that coincided with the drafting of Irv Smith Jr. in the second round out of Alabama but the two tight ends should combine to be an effective pair at the position.

Look Familiar?

Here is the end-zone angle of the pass I showed you when talking about Kirk Cousins. This angle really shows how impressive of a catch this was. Rudolph just sticks his big mitt out there and pulls this one in while keeping his feet in bounds. Truly a great play.

Nice Awareness

Here’s that rare deep pass that Kirk Cousins just puts on the money. I can’t tell you when the guy is going to do it, just that he’s going to throw a ton of bad balls before he hits one like this.

Anyway, Thielen did a good job pulling this ball in before getting down to make sure he was in bounds for the touchdown. The corner played this route really poorly but based on what we saw from our Colts last week I don’t know if it’s realistic to expect better from anyone in blue this week.

Thielen Again

Thielen beats Jaire Alexander off the line and then outruns him to the back of the end zone.

And yes, this is another deep pass from Cousins that hits on the money. I assure you, this is the exception rather than the rule.


Offensive Line:

Every time I sit down to watch an opposing team’s offensive line I want them to be worse than the Colts line. We spent so many years hoping for a good line that now that we have one, I want every other fan base to have to know that pain too.

Unfortunately for Colts fans, this week our opponents have a really good offensive line. And I hate to admit it but they’re fun to watch. Now they don’t have anyone like Quenton Nelson but due to the nature of the system this line is asked to act a lot. They pretend to be zone blocking on passes, they pretend to pass set on runs, they’re good actors and effective people movers when the time comes.

From left to right:

Riley Reiff, Dakota Dozier, Garrett Bradbury, Pat Elflein, Brian O’Neill

They have a pair of interesting backups in Ezra Cleveland a 2020 2nd round pick and Dru Samia a third year pro from Oklahoma. I liked Samia as a prospect, I hated Cleveland. For now I’m willing to give the Vikings the benefit of the doubt as I didn’t think Brian O’Neill would be very good and I was wrong about that.

Yikes

I’ve watched this play a lot and I’m still not sure what Riley Reiff was doing here. Maybe Kirk insulted his mother before the play, I’m not sure but this is as easy of a sack as you’ll see.

Impressive Zone Movement

The Vikings entire line moves well which is important given then number of zone concepts they use. They also regularly use a fullback to great effect.

Not Their Fault

You might see a safety in the box score from last week’s game and I’ve gotta say that’s just a great play from Jaire Alexander. It would have been crazy to think anyone could have seen this coming or reacted to it quickly enough to stop it. Sometimes guys just make great plays and Alexander did that here.

Fun Fact From 2019

It makes sense that the Vikings line is light. Their entire system is predicated on the line’s ability to move quickly. The amazing thing is despite their “small” size, these guys don’t spend much time getting pushed around.

As much as I hate to admit it, this Vikings line is really good. They pass block well, they open holes in the ground game, they’re an all around good line. I’m not going to rule anything out but if week one is any indication we shouldn’t expect to see much success from the Colts front seven in this one.


Final Thoughts:

This Vikings offense is, in a lot of ways, like the Jaguars offense we saw a week ago. The rolling out, the zone rushing concepts, the yards after the catch. The difference is the Vikings have more talented players running the system.

I’m not saying that I expect the Colts to get blown out, I’m not even saying I expect them to lose. What I am saying is if they hope to have a chance in this one they’re going to need to have a better plan than they did last week against a similar offense.