If someone had told you that the Minnesota Vikings would lose their starting quarterback in Week 2 and still rank 10th in the NFL in passing yards, you wouldn’t have believed them.
But the combination of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s scheme, the talents of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, protection from the offensive line and execution by Case Keenum have made the Vikings’ passing game a serious threat. The first half of Sunday’s game in Washington was a perfect storm.
There are few better examples of all the aspects of the Vikings’ passing game working in conjunction than the 51-yard completion from Keenum to Diggs on Minnesota’s opening drive.
The Vikings line up with two tight ends to Keenum’s right. The personnel package draws Washington into using three linebackers and bringing their safety up to the line of scrimmage, putting eight men in the box. At the top and bottom of the screen, Thielen and Diggs have 1-on-1 coverage – a recipe for disaster for Washington’s defense.
Diggs recognizes that cornerback Josh Norman is playing outside leverage, so he starts inside then breaks hard toward Norman’s outside shoulder, spinning him around. Keenum’s play-action fake freezes the safety for a moment, then the Vikings’ QB launches the ball deep toward the sideline in an area where the over-the-top safety cannot reach.
Protection is key on this play. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan both end up 1-on-1 blocking against linebackers and do a nice job of keeping them away from Keenum, who needs an extra split second because of the fake handoff. And Keenum makes the right read seeing that defensive end dropped back into a zone underneath Thielen’s route.
Here’s where Shurmur excels: He often gives the same look as a successful play, but runs it with a different wrinkle. Later in the first half, he loaded the two tight ends to Keenum’s right and kept them both in to block. Keenum runs the play-action and Washington’s safety sprints to get over top Diggs.
Except Thielen’s route went the opposite direction. Instead of coming over the middle, this time Thielen slams on the breaks and runs a fade. His route running ability had the Washington corner on skates and with no help over the top, Thielen was wide open.
Keenum did a good job of adapting to pass rushing coming from Ryan Kerrigan, who is one of the league’s better pass rushers.
Throughout the day, Shurmur – as he has all year – continued to use personnel and formations to throw off Washington’s defense.
On a 38-yard throw on the Vikings’ third offensive drive, Thielen ends up 1-on-1 with linebacker Zach Brown – an incredible mismatch considering cornerbacks can’t even cover Thielen.
How did it happen? Washington isn’t a team that moves their top corner Norman around like the Vikings often do with Xavier Rhodes. When the Vikings broke the huddle, they had 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back), so Washington responded with nickel personnel (two linebackers, three corners). But the Vikings lined up in a five-receiver set with Kyle Rudolph off the line of scrimmage and McKinnon as the receiver at the top of the screen, leaving Thielen set up against Brown.
Clearly Brown realizes before the play there is a problem. He looks back at the safety, who drifts back in zone coverage. It doesn’t take any time at all for Keenum to realize the mismatch and Thielen shakes Brown like there was no defender at all. A poor angle from the safety combined with a deep route by Jarius Wright forcing the other safety deep allows Thielen to have the entire middle of the field open for huge yards after catch.
Over the past few years, the Vikings have struggled at times to punch the ball in the end zone. Not Sunday. They were 5-for-5 in the red zone, in large part because of Shurmur’s creativity and his understanding of what opponents watched on tape.
Against the Cleveland Browns, Jerick McKinnon ran a jet sweep in for a touchdown. So when the Vikings got down to the goal line against Washington, they opened up in a formation with McKinnon and the fullback CJ Ham in the backfield, then both out, leaving an empty backfield.
McKinnon went in motion, leaving Washington to believe he might run the jet sweep. No. 51 follows McKinnon across the line on the fake, while David Morgan gets lost in the shuffle.
The play happened at such a quick pace that Washington isn’t able to get their assignments straightened out. Tempo has been another key focus of Shurmur’s offense.
What does this tell is about the Keenum vs. Bridgewater debate? Two things: The Vikings have a backup in Keenum who is in control of the offense and can diagnose defenses and make the throws he’s supposed to make. It also says that if Bridgewater returns, it will be to an offense that is stacked with talent, a good offensive line and an offensive coordinator who is using his weapons to their fullest extent.