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Vikings’ offensive changes paying off

December 28, 2018

One of the first things Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer did after the team hired John DeFilippo was request a sitdown between them so they could go through the tape of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 38-7 beatdown of Zimmer’s Vikings in the NFC championship game about three weeks prior.

DeFilippo was the quarterbacks coach for an Eagles team that handed down one of the worst defensive performances in the Zimmer era. The last time an offense hung more points on Minnesota was in Zimmer’s first season as head coach, via Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field.

What Zimmer wanted to know was twofold: how the Eagles were able to do what they did, rolling up 456 yards of offense, four pass plays of 36 yards or longer and converting a stunning 10-of-14 third downs against the best third-down defense in history; but the head coach also wanted to get a feel for how DeFilippo would approach play calling, something he only had done for one season with the Browns in 2015, in Minnesota.

That was prior to the Vikings letting 2017 savior Case Keenum go, along with the other two QBs on the roster last season, Week 1 starter Sam Bradford and folk hero Teddy Bridgewater, who earned a few late-season feel-good snaps in his long road back from a devastating knee injury.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the significant changes on that side of the ball for the Vikings, who signed QB Kirk Cousins to a (fully guaranteed) $84 million contract a month after DeFilippo arrived, were going to cause a 13-3 team one win away from a Super Bowl in their home stadium to take a step backward before they moved forward.

It turned out that step was bigger than expected. And it became clear pretty early on in DeFilippo’s tenure that things were not going according to any anticipated plan.

After a few weeks of making it clear to the media that he didn’t like the course of the offense following road losses to the Bears and Patriots, Zimmer did what he felt was necessary following Minnesota’s 21-7 loss at Seattle: He fired DeFilippo — after eight months and one day on the job — and promoted QB coach Kevin Stefanski.

Just as the Cousins signing signaled that the Vikings were in go-for-broke mode in 2018, so did hiring DeFilippo. He roundly was viewed as a head coach in-waiting for another team, so it appeared that GM Rick Spielman and the front office knew he could be coming in as a one-year rental.

That part ended up being true. Just not the way they expected.

Asked during the Week 16 pregame broadcast why Zimmer didn’t just hire Stefanski — who has been with the team since 2006, eight years before the head coach’s arrival — the head coach said, “sometimes you get caught up in things.” For such an apparently vapid sound bite, his words actually spoke volumes about how the hire went down.

Since Stefanski’s promotion to interim offensive coordinator, the Vikings’ offense has looked vastly improved the past two games, even with a slow start in the Week 16 win at Detroit. The team has scored 41 and 27 points, its two highest totals since mid-October, and has made fundamental changes to the look and feel of the personnel, formations and approach to play calling.

One big change has been putting Cousins under center more. Under DeFilippo’s watch, Cousins was in the shotgun 64 percent of the time, which was above the league average, according to Warren Sharp. But in the two games Stefanski has called plays, that percentage pretty much has been flipped on its head. Cousins has only been in shotgun on 32 percent of his snaps, with 68 percent coming from under center.

Cousins has slightly improved his completion percentage (from 70.6 to 71.4), but the biggest improvement has come in his yards per attempt (from 7.1 to 9.6), even as the Vikings have thrown fewer times.

It also appears to have helped Minnesota’s much-maligned pass protection, even if it resulted in only marginal improvements. In the first 13 games of the season, the Vikings allowed an average of 2.5 sacks and 5.9 QB hits; in the past two, those numbers have been reduced to 2.0 and 5.0, respectively. Cousins also appears to be scrambling less often in those games, further preventing him from potentially taking unnecessary hits.

But part of that also can be explained by the fewer pass attempts per game. When DeFilippo was let go, the Vikings were second in the NFL (a sliver behind the No. 1 Steelers) in pass-play percentage at 67.0. In the two games since, the Vikings have thrown the ball a mere 43.8 percent of the time, one of the lowest rates in the league over that span.

One of the chief complaints Zimmer seemed to have with DeFilippo was a propensity to be way too pass-happy. There’s no question that Stefanski has received that directive loudly and clearly — and run with it.

Since then, Dalvin Cook has run for 209 yards on 33 carries (6.0 yards per carry). It has been the best two-week total of his second season, as well as the heaviest ground workload in consecutive games since the first few contests his rookie year. Latavius Murray’s production hasn’t been as strong as Cook’s since the change in coordinators, but he’s still been tasked with carrying the ball 24 times in those two games.

Stefanski is utilizing a good mix of inside and outside zones, the latter of which caters to Cook’s cutback style and helps open up lanes despite an offensive line that largely has struggled to do so this season consistently.

There also have been notable personnel grouping changes. With DeFilippo, the Vikings were a heavy “11 personnel” team (one back, one tight end), using that grouping 69 percent of the time, followed next by “12 personnel” (one back, two tight ends) 19 percent of the time. In those first 13 games, they ran a grand total of 11 plays with more than two tight ends on the field.

But Stefanski has helped balance things more, using two-TE sets. That has seen an increased role for Kyle Rudolph, who scored his first two touchdowns since Week 3 in this past game, and a decreased role for Laquon Treadwell, who was a healthy scratch last week — the first time the former first-rounder had sat in 30 games. In addition to giving more snaps to reserve TEs David Morgan and Tyler Conklin, Stefanski also has used reserve OL Rashod Hill as an extra blocker, most notably on a red-zone play that helped set up Rudolph’s second score against the Lions.

The Bears will see a different Vikings offense than the one they did back in Week 11, when Chicago held them to 22 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per play and five first-half first downs. There are still warts with this unit, especially up front, but it appears Stefanski is doing a better job of masking those issues and highlighting the team’s playmakers, especially Cook and Rudolph.

That likely has made Zimmer happy as his team is desperately trying to claw its way into the end zone. And it makes the chore tougher for the Bears in Week 17, as well as perhaps the first round of the playoffs back in Soldier Field if the Vikings can first win their regular-season finale.

If that happens, Zimmer’s midseason firing of DeFilippo will appear less of a move borne from desperation and more of one that could be exactly what this team needed at the time. Until then, we’re left to wonder what might have been had Stefanski been hired in the first place.

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