EAGAN, Minn. — Jay-Z once said: “They hate me then they love me then they hate me again.” That has been the story of the last three weeks for the Minnesota Vikings offense.
In a loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football, the Vikings were shutout in the first half and ultimately saw a comeback attempt come up short in a 25-20 loss at Soldier Field. Following the game, head coach Mike Zimmer expressed frustration with the team’s inability to run the ball, the “volume” of plays and the scheme trying to “trick the other team.”
It appeared those issues were mostly fixed the following Sunday night at US Bank Stadium when the Vikings rolled over the Green Bay Packers, hitting on simple concepts like bootlegs and screen passes. Quarterback Kirk Cousins put on a strong performance against the Pack, hitting 29-of-38 passing for 342 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a 129.5 rating and 75.5 QBR — an ESPN-invented 1-100 system of grading a quarterback’s performance.
But the offense is back under the white hot light again after a 24-10 loss in New England in which the Vikings averaged 4.0 yards per drop back.
“Right now we’re kind of an up and down team a little bit and that’s the thing that frustrates me the most,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Monday. “We need to develop more consistency with this football team. Since whatever time it was last night after the game until still now, I’m still trying to figure out how we can do that.”
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is feeling the heat the most.
While Zimmer said he is doing a “good job” and the two are in constant communication, the Vikings’ head coach also mentioned giving some more in-game responsibilities to defensive coordinator so he could help the offense. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
And then there was a post from the website ProFootball Talk, which suggested DeFilippo is trying too hard to come across like the next brilliant offensive mind. Mike Florio wrote:
Here’s what else is becoming more and more glaring: The efforts of current offensive coordinator John DeFilippo to get a head-coaching job by dialing up plays aimed at generating more buzz that he’s a candidate to become a head coach as soon as 2019. It reminds me of the latter year of two of Hue Jackson’s prior tenure in Cincinnati? He was coming up with funky formations and trick plays as part of a not-so-subtle effort to become a head coach again.
It’s seems like DeFilippo may be doing something similar, showcasing his skills in designing and calling potentially explosive plays instead of relying as much as he should on a meat-and-potatoes approach.
It may not end well.
It’s worth mentioning that Pat Shurmur succeeded a great deal in 2017 by mixing formations and personnel packages, so that isn’t anything new. But the bottom line is that the Vikings’ offense ranks 25th in the percentage of drives in which they produce points. Six of the seven teams below them are out of the playoff race entirely.
With Cousins in place, the Vikings were expected to put together a more explosive passing attack, but Minnesota sits in 16th in Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Points” and 21nd in yards per pass attempt.
There are reasonable questions about the team’s gameplans in recent weeks. Chicago’s superstar defensive end Khalil Mack was left one-on-one on a regular basis and the Patriots forced the Vikings to target Aldrick Robinson twice as much as Stefon Diggs and throw 10 passes in Dalvin Cook’s direction for only 22 yards.
“We had some other plays designed to get him the football that weren’t check downs and the ball didn’t get to [Cook],” Zimmer said.
Against the Patriots, the Vikings’ offensive line held up fairly well. Cousins was only pressured 13 times in the game on 46 total drop backs, but averaged only 4.6 yards per attempt on unpressured drop backs.
DeFilippo has attempted to give Cousins a quick-passing offense to operate. According to NFL NextGen stats, only Blake Bortles and Derek Carr average fewer Air Yards per Attempt than Cousins — meaning he is rarely throwing intermediate and downfield passes. He went just 1-for-7 on throws over 10 yards against the Pats.
In the running game, it’s fair for Zimmer to request more runs when Cook gains 84 yards on nine carries, but NextGen reveals the Vikings have not forced Cook to run against eight-man fronts very often — only 12 percent of the time, in fact. Los Angeles running back Todd Gurley is one of the only RBs in the NFL with a lower run percentage against the eight-man box.
Cousins has the option to check to run plays if he sees the right looks.
“We had one real long run that [Cousins] audibled to a run,” Zimmer revealed on Monday.
Still the Vikings are tied for 24th in yards per carry, which likely explains why they have relied on a short passing game to create a pseudo running attack. But you might ask if scheme is playing a role in ranking 24th with a good amount of talent in the backfield.
The micro look at the Vikings’ offense finds concerns in a number of areas. The macro look reveals that an up-and-down offense is a staple of Cousins’ career.
Washington ranked 18th last year in percentage of scoring drives. His current traditional stats from this season are almost a mirror image of his average season in D.C.
In the Bad-Christmas-Sweater graphic below are all of Cousins’ games since 2015 by the ESPN 1-100 QBR metric. QBR weighs a number of factors including game situation to form a grade.
One way of understanding QBR might be what type of odds the QB gives his team to win with his performance. So a score that lands between 0-25 = no chance to win, starts between 25-50 = some chance with good defense/running, starts between 50-75 = good chance to win, starts between 75=100 almost always win. Week 1 is at the bottom.
What you may notice is that each season is pretty colorful. Here’s the distribution:
0-25: Five starts
26-50: 16 starts
51-75: 18 starts
76-100: 22 starts
Some years feature incredible stretches of play, others see a lot of games in which Cousins gives his team some chance or a good chance to win and whether they obtain a victory relies on other circumstances.
You will find a similar distribution using Pro Football Focus’s game grades, which score Cousins between solid and great in seven contests and between mediocre and poor in five games this year.
In Washington, Cousins had a tremendous offensive line and supporting cast in 2016 and put up more strong performances than in 2017 when the team saw DeSean Jackson leave in free agency and the O-line get injured.
The margin for error isn’t high with an up-and-down quarterback. The Vikings saw cornerback Trae Waynes go down early in the game, leaving them dinged up to deal with the Patriots’ deep set of weapons. Zimmer also pointed out some surprising issues on defense in the Pats’ opening touchdown drive.
“We made a couple of mistakes on that first drive early in the game, which were really uncharacteristic, which was disappointing,” he said. “That was before they got hurt. The touchdown was one that not one of the new guys was involved, so that wasn’t an issue. At the end of the game, Marcus [Sherels] missed a tackle and we didn’t run support very good, but it is what it is.”
Speaking of razor-thin margins, the Vikings are now facing a scenario in which they could drop to just six wins in 13 games with a loss to the Seattle Seahawks next Monday Night. At this point, it’s difficult to tell whether the good version of the Vikings’ quarterback will be there in Seattle.
It would appear that if the Vikings are going to make the playoffs and go any farther than the first round, they will not only need to make tweaks to the scheme and playcalling, but also land on a stretch of strong games from their quarterback.
Though if his regular distribution persists, taking the next four games probably rests in the hands of everything around Cousins. Things like the Vikings’ defense against Russell Wilson, their running game, whether they can be effective with screen passes, whether Dan Bailey can find his accuracy and holder Matt Wile can get on the field on time etc.
It’s worth noting that there are very few quarterbacks who consistently put up 75-plus QBR performances. Cousins is 14th in overall QBR at an average of 64.0, essentially tied with DeShaun Watson and Cam Newton but well behind the likes of top-ranked Pat Mahomes and Drew Brees, who average 84.3 and 84.2, respectively. But there are 16 QBs between 50 and 70.
The differences between teams are small and often it’s supporting cast, playcalling etc. that determines the outcomes of games. And the entire supporting cast — including, but certainly not limited to DeFilippo — will have to step up in order to get the most out of Cousins down the stretch.