Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum has found either Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen wide open so often this season that we have come to expect a big play every time he throws the ball in either of their directions.
There’s no doubt that route running ability is at the center of Diggs and Thielen’s success, but the explanation for their terrific 2017 performances goes beyond good routes and good hands. It also comes from the interlocking set of parts on offense that Pat Shurmur has to work with. It also comes from the two receivers’ adaptability and high football intelligence.
Before we dig deeper into how they have done it, here’s the numbers: Combined, Thielen and Diggs have 136 catches on 210 targets (65 percent completion percentage) for 1,915 yards and 10 touchdowns. They have made up 56 percent of the Vikings total passing game. Pro Football Focus ranks Thielen ninth and Diggs as the 17th best receivers in the league.
The Vikings create mismatches and confusion by changing formations and personnel on nearly every play and running the same plays and concepts out of different looks.
Asked why Minnesota’s offense was more dangerous this year than in past seasons, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy pointed to the Vikings’ constant morphing from play to play.
“A lot more variation,” McCarthy said. “The coordination of the scheme and really you have to give Case a lot of credit with the command he runs the offense with. They do a good job with the runs looking exactly the same as their pass action or their run-action passes, they’re playing at a really high level. Pat’s doing a great job.”
Defensive coordinator George Edwards explained the challenge that defenses face when matching up with teams who can vary personnel effectively.
“What it does is, it forces guys to have to think,” Edwards said. “It tries to cut down on the reaction time and having to think about alignment on assignments…The versatility, I mean Green Bay does the exact same thing, they’ve got so many different personnel groupings and they’re usually there at the line of scrimmage. They sub, they get lined up quickly, and try to get out and execute. But, that’s essentially what it does is try and cut down on your reaction time defensively.”
The driving force behind the Vikings’ offensive variation is Diggs and Thielen’s ability to perform just as effective as outside receivers as slot receivers.
“I think that’s important to be able to get individual matchups, plus they can’t say, ‘every time Thielen lines up here it’s going to be this or that,’ I think that helps,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said.
On Madden 18, you can take any receiver and put him in any spot and run any kind of play. In the real world, many receivers can’t effectively switch in between positions.
“You have to have a better feel of the game when you’re playing in the slot,” Diggs said. “It’s not like playing outside where it’s timing and all that. You have to have a feel for where defenses are at and anticipate where guys want to go and setting things up rather than running a route at a certain depth and trying to get separation.”
Diggs predominantly played in the slot during his college years at Maryland, which helped him quickly transition into the more intellectual of the two positions at the NFL level. Slot receivers have to read whether the defense is playing man or zone coverage based on pre-snap look, then if it’s zone, they have to find holes in the zone without going off script.
Thielen runs through a number of questions in his mind as he’s determining his course of action on a particular play.
“I think the big thing is how you’re going to release,” he said. “Are you getting pressure off the slot? What kind of leverage are you going to get? Where does the defense want you to go? Things like that. There’s just a lot of moving parts, you have a two-way go more on the inside than you have on the outside.”
A “two-way go” means that a receiver can take off either on the outside or inside of his defender. On option routes, the receiver must decide based on the defense whether he’s cutting in or out and at what depth – all as the play is developing in hyper fast speed.
Thielen said that weaving between zones sometimes also means getting free from more than one defender on a single play.
“Usually when you’re in the slot, you have multiple-level releases,” Thielen said. “Obviously you get the man-to-man coverage and things like that, but you’re trying to find areas in zones, you’re releasing on linebackers sometimes, on DBs sometimes, sometimes it’s a safety, sometimes it’s a nickel. On the outside you’re matched up for the most part on one guy. It’s a little more simplistic of what you’re going to get on the outside.”
The receiver’s approach also changes – in the slot or outside – depending on the formation, whether it’s three receiving options to one side or two on both sides.
“Guys who can do both have a lot of success because you’re not limited to where they can line you up,” Diggs said. “When you’re playing on the outside, it depends whether it’s 3×1 or 2×2. When it’s 3×1, you’re pretty much by yourself on the boundary….That’s why you see more big receivers out there… Bigger receivers who are not used to playing in the slot have a hard time with that because they’re not used to creating a lot of space. Slot is more smaller, quicker guys. If you can do both, it doesn’t really matter.”
“If you can do both and create space and separation, you’ll have success.”
Thielen and Diggs have proven over and over that they can create space and separation and have success. In order to have a top-10 offense, however, it takes more than that. Both receivers made a point to recognize how the Vikings’ improved running game has helped them, no matter where they line up. They put defenses in a Catch-22 when deciding whether to bring a safety up to the line of scrimmage or have two safeties back to cover the Vikings’ two top-20 receivers.
“We are going to make you stack that box and if you don’t we’re going to make you pay,” Diggs said. “If you go single safety against us, we’re going to bite off as much as we can.
Shurmur has used two tight ends often to force teams into respecting the run. David Morgan, a blocking tight end with five receptions this year, has played 31 percent of total snaps this year and over 50 percent in two games.
“We have a lot of threats and we can run the ball efficiently when we do that,” Diggs explained. “When it’s me and Adam on the field, you really don’t know where the ball is going. You don’t know if we’re running the ball. And guys on the outside, if it’s Cover-3, it turns into man, so you have to play a guy man-up. If you want to stop the run, you’re going to put an extra guy in the box. If you don’t, we’re going to run the ball. Mixing and matching, taking what they give us. If you give us a chance, we’re going to take it.”
The Vikings have the seventh best play-action passing attack in the NFL, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt on throws that include a play-fake.
“It makes the run game and pass game look very similar,” Thielen added. “I think that’s a big part of it. Those guys have done a really good job blocking for the running backs.”
Thielen also pointed out that bringing in two tight ends gives the Vikings options when it comes to pass protection. With two receivers who can consistently beat coverage, they can protect Keenum with both tight ends or send either out depending on the defenses’s pass rush.
Quarterback evaluation has become a topic de jour this year with Keenum making a big jump from backup to top-10 in the NFL in passer rating while other QBs like Dak Prescott and Derek Carr having less productive years with weaker supporting casts. The Vikings’ offense is an example of everything coming together around the quarterback and that starts with Shurmur fully utilizing the technical gifts and football IQs of Diggs and Thielen.