At some point this season, Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings will find themselves in a situation in which the season hangs in the balance.
Considering the Vikings went 13-3 last season and then upgraded at quarterback and added an extra piece to their No. 1 ranked defense, it’s safe to say that they expect to find themselves in important games in January.
But when it comes to those pressure-packed playoff contests, the Vikings’ new quarterback and offensive coordinator do not have a lot of experience.
Cousins has only started one playoff game. He threw for 329 yards, but lost 35-18 to Green Bay in a game in which Washington blew an 11-point lead. DeFilippo was the quarterbacks coach for the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles. The only time he’s been the one calling plays was in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns. His club finished 3-13 and 30th in points.
“What really helps is I’ve done the job before,” DeFilippo said. “Done the job on a team where you really had to manufacture yards and find ways to get guys open. Was it a great situation at the time? No. Was it perfect? No. At the same time, I think it really helped to prepare how to coach. When you do get that opportunity when you do have guys that maybe are the next step up in terms of ability, I think it helps to take some of those ideas to manufacture yards and feed the ball in their hands.”
Clearly it would be tough to look at the struggling 2015 Cleveland team for answers on what the Vikings’ OC will call for his new quarterback in big spots. We can, however, look at concepts used by the Eagles when it mattered most and apply those elements to the Vikings.
Bobby Peters is an engineer and high school football coach who authored the Philadelphia Eagles 2017 Third Down Manual. He looked at every third down the Eagles ran last season, drew out each one of their plays and wrote the most likely reads for the quarterback.
One of the discoveries readers of the book make is that the Eagles head coach Doug Pederson used a collage of concepts born from the Air Raid, West Coast, Air Coryell and run-and-shoot offenses. There is no clear-cut definition. And the core concepts used in the biggest situations tended to morph with Pederson rarely using the same look and play twice.
“It’s a combination of a lot of people, a lot of good football minds coming together to create that,” Cousins said. “I haven’t asked [DeFilippo], ‘what was stuff you’ve taken from Philadelphia? What is stuff you’ve taken from coach Shurmur? What is stuff you’ve taken from my input?’ I really don’t know. It is a melting pot.
In Minnesota, DeFilippo will have to also made adaptations to his offense based on personnel. The Vikings’ skill players and quarterback are quite different from Philadelphia’s groups. Let’s have a look at how each skill player could be used on an important third down play based on their skills and the Eagles’ concepts…
In Philadelphia, everything started with the tight end position, which naturally has Kyle Rudolph jacked up to play for DeFilippo.
“For me specifically, the success that he’s had with tight ends that he’s been around, it’s exciting,” Rudolph said. “We have a ton of playmakers on offense. He’s mentioned multiple times that he’s going to get the ball in everybody’s hands and everybody is going to have an opportunity to make plays.”
But Rudolph is a different animal from the Eagles’ leading receiver Zach Ertz. The Vikings’ starting tight end isn’t as quick or shifty, but he uses his size and exceptional hands to be a threat in key spots – especially the red zone.
“I would probably have Rudolph to the outside because he’s got that big frame,” Peters said. “He can post up the smaller corner or outrun the slower box safety. By lining tight ends up on the outside, defenses can’t disguise their double teams as easily when they are detached from the formation. ”
Under Pat Shurmur, Rudolph was routinely a target on third downs, grabbing 14 passes on 20 throws his way for 11 first downs and averaging 11.0 yards per reception.
Focal Concept for Rudolph: All Curls
Numbers: 14 times called, 7.1 yards to go, 43% success*
*All data from the Eagles’ third down manual
The All Curls concept is simple on the surface, with each receiver running the same route past the sticks. But it’s tricky for defenses. Peters suggests a 3×1 alignment with Rudolph alone on one side gives the bigger tight end an opportunity to use his big body to post up the corner or safety.
“I’d put either [Stefon] Diggs or [Adam] Thielen in that No. 3 spot to run the middle curl to threaten the middle linebacker with speed and then curl underneath him,” Peters said. “The way they space it, as long as the quarterback can identify one-on-one coverage, he’s usually got a guy open.”
One example came in Week 15 against the New York Giants.
This play did not end up as a pass to the tight end because Ertz drew a holding call against the smaller corner Ross Cockrell. The Eagles get the look they want to the quarterback’s right, but Nick Foles is forced to move his eyes from right to left in the progression and find the slot receiver against man coverage.
“Whether it was Wentz or Foles, they would stick him right there if it was man coverage,” Peters said.
“If he was getting bracketed, they would have something on the other side of the field where they would get a one-on-one matchup with Alglohr in the slot or Jeffery coming in on an under route or something of that sort. Specific to Kyle Rudolph, I could see DeFilippo using him in that sense quite often. The first read in the progression.”
The Eagles acquired Torey Smith and Alshon Jeffery to bolster their receiving corps, but Philadelphia did not have receivers in the same ballpark as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, who both rated as top-10 receivers by Pro Football Focus last year.
The Vikings’ new OC was asked about what he saw from Diggs in OTAs.
“It shocked me the way he can run,” DeFilippo said. “The tape doesn’t do that justice. His ball skills are fantastic. The way he tracks the football in the air. You guys saw him make that deep ball catch down here. His ball skills are really, really good.”
What makes Diggs and Thielen special is they can be used in any alignment and can win on short, intermediate and deep routes. For example, in 2017 Adam Thielen lined up in the slot on 51.1 percent of his snaps according to PFF. In 2016, Diggs lined up in the slot for 62.7 percent of his snaps.
Focal Concept for Diggs/Thielen: Slot Fade
Numbers: 5 times called, 6.8 yards to go, 80 percent success
This is one of Peters’ favorite concepts. In fact, it’s on the front of the book. He explains why it would be effective for Diggs and Thielen:
“In a trips set, a lot of times the safety on that side of the field will be worried about inside breaking routes because that’s a far throw to the sideline,” Peters said. “With speed guys like that, if you have a one-on-one matchup in the slot, with the space available to the receiver on the wide side of the field, I would imagine seeing more of that now that he has faster slot receivers when compared to his time in Philly.”
On this play, the Chiefs have a single high safety and man coverage on the side of the field with three receivers.
According to PFF, Thielen and Diggs both ranked in the top five in completion percentage on throws traveling more than 20 yards. Finding either one of them downfield one-on-one in key situations is a winning play.
DeFilippo has a lot to be excited about with his offensive personnel. In four games, Dalvin Cook showed that he has all the makings of an every-down franchise running back.
On third downs, he won’t have to come off the field. In fact, his receiving ability gives the Vikings the option of using him as a top option in big spots.
The Eagles used a lot of clever screens – which no doubt will leak into the Vikings’ offense – but Cook’s ability to catch the ball downfield gives them something more dynamic than most teams possess out of the backfield. DeFilippo talked about the possibility of motioning Cook outside.
“You see the explosiveness,” DeFilippo said. “The thing we tried to work with Dalvin, coming in here, is getting him outside the numbers a little bit. Getting him out wide and getting him comfortable out there. We want our best players and all of our best players to be able to line up anywhere. The more jobs you can do and the more places you can line up eliminates decision making for the quarterback before he gets the ball in his hand. It gives you man/zone indicators. It gives you rotation indicators. All of those things that you are looking for for the quarterback to help him slow the game down for himself.”
Focal Concept for Cook: Mesh
Numbers: 7 times called, 4.3 average yards to go, 43 percent success
We all remember Nick Foles catching a pass for a touchdown before halftime of the Super Bowl, but the play that set up Foles’ TD reception was a mesh concept throw to running back Corey Clement. In a 2×2 formation, the two receivers at the top run crossing patters while the slot receiver to the QB’s left runs across the field in between them creating the mesh. Clement flies out of the backfield, beating his defender (outlined in yellow) in man coverage for a 55-yard reception.
“That specific route is referred to as a ‘rail’ route, it’s not quite a wheel,” Peters said. “The back will break up the sideline, he’s not selling a flat route, he’s just going up the side line and the underneath routes are meant to get in the linebackers’ way a little bit. So if it’s man coverage, that’s usually who the quarterback will look to first.”
The Eagles often ran a flat route with mesh concept, which may be what the defender was looking for.
One element of Cook’s game that will allow him to succeed on plays like this is his pass blocking. On a mesh concept play earlier in the year against Arizona, the Cardinals sent a blitz, forcing Clement to stay in and block. If the Vikings didn’t trust Cook to block, they would have to risk opponents sending pressure with blitzes on third downs or turn to Latavius Murray.
Over the past three years, Cousins has been a solid quarterback on third down. Per Pro-Football Reference, he ranks 10th in rating of QBs with over 100 passes (94.1) and 16th on third downs with six or more yards to go in yards per attempt (7.5). Pro Football Focus wrote this in their QB Annual:
“Cousins’ gunslinger mentality shined through on third downs, where he was sixth in big-time throws yet had the fourth most turnover-worthy throws.”
Peters said the biggest difference between DeFilippo’s previous franchise QB and his new one is the ability to go off script and make a game-changing play when nothing was available originally.
“The Eagles definitely executed within the structure of the pass concept a lot of times but a good chunk of their successful third downs were Carson Wentz either getting pressured quickly or his receivers were coverage and he would get out of the pocket and throw a bomb,” Peters said. “That stuck out as the biggest difference. Plays like that on third down, that changes games. You’re a half a play away from punting and instead you scored a touchdown on an improbable play from your quarterback escaping and finding something. You can do scramble drills in practice but you don’t teach that stuff. That’s the biggest difference from that standpoint between Wentz and Kirk Cousins.”
The biggest difference from Cousins on first and second and Cousins on third down is that the play-action is taken away. He’s been one of the league’s best play-action QBs, but on third down, opponents know what’s coming, the quarterback and OC just have to beat them.
Focal Concept for Cousins: Slants Dragon
Numbers: 14 times called, 8.6 average yards to go, 36 percent success
Cousins may not be an elite improviser, but he has good footwork, a strong arm and a great understanding of defenses.
Slants Dragon is simply slants on one side of the field and a slant-flat combo on the other. This allows Cousins to make a decision at the line and deliver the ball quickly without a high chance of him making a risky throw.
“In the red zone something like that makes sense,” Peters said. “If you’re the defense you’re not worried so much about anything over the top so you’re going to be on top of any vertical releases quickly, so those quick in-breaking routes, the quarterback gets rid of them fast and it’s high percentage and low risk.”
On this play, Alshon Jeffery simply gains position on his man and finds space between the linebacker and safety. If the linebacker dropped deeper, he would have had Ertz or Nelson Agholor open as both players’ defender was playing outside leverage.
Peters notes that the concept can work against either single-high safety or two-deep safety defensive alignments. On plays like the one above, the Dragon side is effective. But the slants would likely be open in the middle with two safeties covering each side.
This play not only speaks to Cousins’ strengths, but the other players’ as well. The tight end can post up in man coverage, both receivers look to create separation with good route running and footwork off the line in press coverage and the running back can either stay home and block or sneak out for a checkdown.
Keenan Allen on slant routes! pic.twitter.com/rEPDf1pWFh
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 28, 2018
Modern offenses are not only a combination of concepts forged through decades of brilliant offensive coordinators, they are also incredibly dynamic. Peters said we can expect John DeFilippo to follow in Pederson’s footsteps by adding new things nearly every game.
“One thing you notice in the book is that it changes week to week,” Peters said. “In the first three weeks of the season, maybe they are using this concept, but in the final three weeks they are using that concept…DeFilippo and Pederson and those guys, they sit in a room and say, ‘OK, we are good at these concepts, now what plays off of this? Can we adjust this guy’s route? The defense will think he’s going in, so we will send him out.’”
So we can expect DeFilippo to be unpredictable, but also play to the strengths of each player. And he has a lot of strengths to work with.