Vikings' commitment to 'multiple' run game is setting them apart
Vikings bring a hot offense into Chicago that has been driven by Dalvin Cook's talent combined with many different run looks
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Rushing attacks are like trucks. Every truck has four wheels, an engine and will generally take you where you want to go but if you want to really get something out of the truck, the devil is in the details. Does it have a diesel engine? Four wheel drive? Extra cab space? A backup camera?
Every team in the NFL does the same things with their running games. Inside zone, outside zone, gap. But the Minnesota Vikings are proving this year that the details of a team’s running scheme can make all the difference.
And, to stick with the metaphor, if you have the souped up truck with a skilled driver like superstar running back Dalvin Cook, a run game can prove to be a source of explosive plays and make life hell for defenses in the play-action game.
The Vikings entered this week as the No. 1 team in the NFL in yards per rush at 5.5, the fourth best in total rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns. Overall, Minnesota’s offense came into Week 10 as No. 1 in yards per play and No. 1 in net yards per pass attempt as well — a mark that is impacted by their souped up truck.
The Vikings’ rushing attack, which has created the third most Expected Points Added on the ground (per Pro-Football Reference) of any team this year, begins with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s signature scheme: The outside zone.
Terrell Davis ran it in the 1990s. Clinton Portis ran it in the 2000s. A bunch of running backs you remember as one-year wonders like Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell ran it along the way. This isn’t exactly the same version though. Kubiak and run-game coordinator/offensive line coach Rick Dennison have used the Vikings’ personnel strengths and some twists on well-known schemes to increase Cook’s chances of breaking a big play. (He opened the week with the most 10-plus yard rushes in the league.)
Have a look at the play below in which the Vikings use three tight ends in Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin (we’ll get to the arrow in a second).
Right away there is a personnel mismatch because the Packers have seven players who are either defensive linemen or linebackers compared to eight linemen or tight ends for the Vikings. That means either a big blocker will match up with a defensive back or Cook will.
The Vikings use multiple tight ends on 38% of total plays per SharpFootballStats. Only eight teams use three-receiver sets less than 50% of the time and the Vikings have the lowest rate of three-receiver sets in the NFL. So facing a bunch of tight ends is not something the defense sees routinely.
Using heavier personnel has helped the Vikings counter opponents stacking up the line of scrimmage to slow Cook. Per NFLNextGen stats, Cook faces an eight-man box on 31% of rushes, the most of any back with more than 100 carries this year.
“When people play an 8-man box, you still have to challenge your guys to run the ball,” Kubiak said. “You can’t just say, ‘If I get an 8-man box, we’re not going to run it.’ We’re just the opposite. We’re committed to it, we have ways of schematically still staying locked into things we want to do. You want to push the ball down the field when that happens but I think the mentality of being really good running the football is one that, whether I’m getting a 7 or an 8-man box, I’m still going to run the football well. That’s where we start, and then try to make some big plays off of it.”
Another detail is the Vikings’ use of pre-snap motion. Motion often reveals something about the defense or forces a change by the D right before the snap. In this case, Smith Jr.’s motion does not bring a defender with him, indicating zone coverage (if a defender followed, it would be man coverage). The Packers also shift to adjust the defensive line, which gives Cook a pretty good idea that he’ll be cutting back rather than taking the run wide.
And then the Vikings use one of their strongest zone run weapons: Garrett Bradbury. One key to a successful zone run is getting defensive linemen moving horizontally and making it harder to plug gaps. That often requires reaching a defensive tackle’s outside shoulder when they are shaded to one side. Bradbury does so on the play and rides the Packers’ DT down the line, creating a lane for Cook.
The extra details of the outside zone run give the Vikings a starting point to their rush attack. Opponents know they can execute this with a high rate of efficiency and they know the Vikings will do it all game long if you let them.
So opponents prepare like heck for outside zone. What the Vikings have given them recently is changes of pace that go beyond Kubiak’s classic design.
Head coach Mike Zimmer explained one key point about using outside zone as the starting point and then switching up from there.
“It’s important because of the fact that, if you start getting those [defensive] linemen working sideways [against outside zone], then all of a sudden you’re double-teaming them, they are anticipating to get moving one way, so you end up getting them knocked off the ball.”
Below is an example of what Zimmer is talking about. The Vikings run inside zone and double team the defensive lineman on the strong side. Guard Ezra Cleveland and tackle Brian O’Neill drive him backward opening up for a huge cutback lane.
Of course, effectively putting these things into practice also requires a running back to understand where his blocks are going to be on each play and which defender will be his to beat in order to create a big play.
“Understanding what’s trying to be done up front and who the guys are I’m trying to get on and where the holes are going to open up and who’s going to be the free hitter – who’s left for me to beat,” Cook said. “What one-on-one tackle do I got to beat? It all factors into that. You got to know exactly what’s going on. That’s why you got to play close attention to details in the game plan.”
Below we get a look at another look at a twist on the inside zone. This time Smith Jr. comes back underneath the formation and Cook cuts back into a massive hole and cruises to a 21-yard touchdown run.
The Packers’ linebacker doesn’t appear to expect Smith to be there and is easily taken out of the play.
Gap schemes have also been a bigger part of the Vikings’ gameplan recently.
“We teach and we’re a zone team, but we’ve run a lot of gap schemes this year,” Kubiak said. “I think it’s a credit to [offensive line coach] Rick [Dennison] and [running back coach Kennedy Polamalu] and our backs do that really well. We’ve got some guys that can pull really well … Ezra [Cleveland] is pulling really well, Dakota. I think it’s helped us schematically where people aren’t just being push, push, push. You’re seeing some gap and counter and things like that. I think it will be big here down the stretch. The more we can do it when we’re doing it well, the more it can help us.”
The power run below has guard Dakota Dozier pulling while O’Neill (with help from Smith Jr.) blocks the defensive lineman and fullback CJ Ham takes on the linebacker. Cook knows exactly where he’s going and hits the open hole full speed.
You can see the linebacker (No. 52) look flat footed as Ham approaches him. O’Neill echoed Zimmer’s earlier point that the more variance a team has in its run schemes, the more defenders second guess themselves on what’s coming.
“I think anytime you’re able to do different things, whether it’s different schemes or different angles or different landmarks in the run game, it gives defensive lines a little bit more to think about,” he said. “If we just run one play or one style of play all day long, they can kind of get a feel for it, get a feel for how we’re trying to block certain things but if you’re switch it up and run different plays different little tweaks here and there, it gives the defensive linemen and the linebackers something else to think about, something else, a different kind of block they have to play that they might not have before.”
The same effects give a boost to play-action.
In previous matchups, the Packers have sent a defensive end or outside linebacker up field against play-action but in this year’s contest at Lambeau (though they did get one sack this way) the Packers were being run off the field by Cook, so they had to pay respect to his cutbacks. On the play below, you can see the D-end and outside linebacker both bite hard on the outside zone run and leave Rudolph running in the flat free.
The more ways in which the Vikings can emulate run looks on pass plays the better. Notice the personnel with two tight ends. Rudolph sells as if he’s sealing the backside for a cutback lane and then disengages into the flat.
Here’s a look at an inside zone play-action that freezes the linebackers and creates a ton of space for Adam Thielen in the middle of the field.
Few quarterbacks have been more effective running play-action as Kirk Cousins. He explained that getting the defense to buy into a play-action is a group effort, from the blockers to the play calling.
“Love to be able to give linebackers a lot to think about, whether it’s the action of the running back with the play fake, whether it’s the lineman with his stance and the way he fires off the ball,” Cousins said. “The entire defense, they have their eyes on different parts of our offense -- different positions will be looking at different players -- so you need all 11 to really sell the play and create that deception. Even the receivers’ route running, the way they attack certain angles on the field, you want to sell one thing and do another. When you can get plays to marry together, it really helps. I think that’s been a big part of our offense this year, is having plays that are different look the same.”
The Vikings’ recent success on the ground will be tested on Monday Night Football this week against the Chicago Bears, who have allowed just 4.1 yards per carry this season and only 86 yards in three career games against Dalvin Cook.
Shutting down the run stifled the play-action game in last year’s matchup. Cousins only gained 18 yards when using play-action in the 16-6 loss in Week 4 of 2019, per Pro Football Focus.
With another shot at their rival — and with playoff chances on the line — the outcome may very well rest on whether the Vikings’ run game truck is firing on all cylinders against one of the NFL’s best defensive lines.
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