Week 1 went about as smooth as you could possibly imagine for the Minnesota Vikings offense. They scored on their opening drive, never trailed and regularly got into the looks and matchups they wanted.
While offenses of years past have regularly been amongst the top half of the league, this iteration of the offense seemed to be generating yards much more smoothly and efficiently despite having largely the same personnel. That puts the spotlight on the one variable that has changed – coaching. And Kevin O’Connell has certainly been showered with praise over the last several days.
But I wanted to dive in a little deeper into the numbers and see how much different this offense looked than it has in years past and what specific things O’Connell is dialing up more often.
Perhaps the most visible of changes was the Vikings’ use of pre-snap motion. That was expected with O’Connell’s arrival from Los Angeles, where the Rams have utilized motion on roughly 46 percent of their snaps since Sean McVay took over in 2017, per ESPN Stats and Info, eighth-most in the league.
On Sunday against the Packers, there was pre-snap movement on 39 percent of the Vikings’ plays. However, through the first drive in the third quarter, that percentage was 50 percent. O’Connell reigned it in late in the game and it’s safe to assume that number could have climbed higher if the game was up for grabs. O’Connell dialed up movement most frequently in high-leverage situations, like when in the red zone. Eight of Minnesota’s 11 plays in the red zone featured pre-snap motion.
By my count, this is how many times each player was motioned.
- Thielen – 9
- Justin Jefferson – 7
- K.J. Osborn – 4
- Irv Smith – 3
- Dalvin Cook – 1
Jefferson’s movement has been highlighted most frequently. Last year, Jefferson motioned on 95 plays, about 5.5 a game, which ranked No. 33 in the NFL, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Cooper Kupp motioned 197 times, about 11.5 a game, No.1 in the NFL.
While Jefferson was only slightly above his 2021 average on Sunday, all seven of the instances occurred during the flurry of motion through the first three quarters.
It’s also clear when Jefferson is in motion, they’re using it to get him the ball. Six of the seven times he was put in motion were passes. Jefferson was targeted on four of those six pass plays and appeared to be the primary option in the other two instances.
Compare that to Thielen, Osborn and Smith. Of the 16 times they were put in motion, they were only targeted twice. Those three were used much more as decoys in the passing game and to move a defender out of the box during a run play.
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The argument of how to defend Jefferson has subsequently become a hot-button topic as Packers star cornerback Jaire Alexander rarely defended Jefferson last week. Here was the dispersion of who Jefferson got his targets against, thanks to Doug Farrar of USA Today.
Farrar mentioned Matt LaFleur’s comments, which were quite transparent on the issue the Packers faced defending Jefferson and the Vikings’ use of motion. “I think if you watch the game, there were many times throughout the course of that game where it wasn’t just a single motion, it was a double motion, right? So, now you’re talking about trailing a guy- whatever it may be. You would have to commit to man coverage. I don’t know how else you’d get it done. I think situationally, I think it can be done,” LaFleur said.
Jefferson averaged four yards of separation from the nearest defender on his targets, per Next Gen. Here’s another stat for you. He gained 138 yards where a Packers defender was not within three yards, per ESPN Stats and Info.
For a team that wants to play zone defense like the Packers, it’s a tall task to commit to man. The Packers played man coverage around just 15 percent of the game, per PFF.
“If a guy goes in motion, it’s more than just one guy covering that guy. Now you’re talking about 10 other guys changing their responsibility, possibly, if you’re in a zoning defense, which you just don’t really see that,” LaFleur said.
Teams will likely adjust and play more man, particularly on Jefferson. The Vikings’ next opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, played man on 25 percent of snaps, per PFF. While that’s hardly a majority, it’s significantly more than the Packers.
On Mina Kimes’ podcast, Dominque Foxworth put it well.
“[Jefferson]’s so good that you’re going to have to contort yourself to stop him. And if you do stop him, everything else is breaking down,” Foxworth said.
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LaFleur reiterated that.
“It’s very similar to how we used Davante [Adams] a year ago. When you have a premier player like that, that has the versatility and the route ability to run many different routes, that’s a huge advantage for an offense, not to mention you have to worry about Thielen and Dalvin Cook,” LaFleur said.
Foxworth pointed out that the best answer to solve Jefferson is to have a player like Jalen Ramsey, who is comfortable and effective moving both on the outside, in the slot and in the box. There he can follow Jefferson on the motion wherever he goes and play either man or zone.
That’s really hard to find, both in talent and versatility. Take the Packers for example. Their top two corners – Alexander and Eric Stokes – combined for only 31 snaps in the slot in 2021. The Packers’ defense has more defined roles, with Stokes and Alexander on the outside. Chandon Sullivan was the only corner to have more than 50 slot snaps (he had 674).
The Eagles are similar. Darius Slay was lined up as an outside corner on 920 snaps, in the box on 97 and in the slot on two in 2021. In Week 1, neither Slay nor newcomer James Bradberry registered a snap in the slot. They had five combined snaps in the box.
The prospect of shifting your entire defense to stop one player when that player is as versatile as Jefferson is a hard one. Teams will find ways to limit his efficiency, but it won’t come easy and it will likely come at the expense of others like Thielen and Cook having an advantage.
Another staple from the McVay offense is the use of 11 personnel, which is one running back, one tight end, and three receivers on the field. The Rams operated in 11 on 86 percent of their plays in 2021, per Sharp Football Analysis.
The Vikings didn’t hit that mark, running 11 on 67 percent of plays. It was certainly more than they did in 2021 when they ran the grouping on 47 percent of plays, per Sharp Football Analysis.
They also took another Rams calling card, which is keeping the same three wide receivers on the field for nearly the entire game. All three were on the field every time the Vikings ran 11 personnel and both Thielen and Jefferson were on the field for more than 90 percent of all offensive plays, per 4for4.
The Vikings’ insistence on keeping three wide receivers helped them, specifically on Jefferson’s 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The Athletic’s Nate Tice and Robert Mays discussed it on the Athletic Football Show.
“It’s a classic, classic play action concept, a deep one, a three-man one. Usually deep play actions are a two-man, work the cross like we say, over and post, double corners and everything. This is a three-man route concept,” Tice said.
“A lot of those play action concepts that were huge plays for the McVay, Shannahan tree early on were two man deep concepts,” Mays said. “You have a clear out and then you have the big over coming behind it. But if you’re playing those two-high shells you can catch that. But if they’re three-man and you’re clearing two guys out with those routes that you’re talking about, now you’re starting to attack two-high shells with crossing routes in a way that you couldn’t with more basic concepts.”
The Vikings were exploring different wrinkles in other aspects of the game as well.
“They’re doing split-zone with K.J. Osborn acting as the de facto tight end. But then they ran jet motion with power. The Rams never run power,” Tice said. “So O’Connell’s not just going cut and paste [from the Rams]he’s actually going, ‘we’re going to tweak this for what we want to do.”
The data also shows the Vikings passed the ball over expectation. Minnesota passed the ball on 54 percent of plays against the Packers. Their expected pass rate — which factors game context like down, distance, time remaining, yard line and score differential — was 49.8 percent. That means they passed 4.3 percent more than expected, which ranked 11th-most in the league, per EstablishTheRun. The splits get lopsided when looking at the tendencies in the red zone.
The Vikings passed on 72.7 percent of their red zone plays. The expectation, again factoring game context, was 46.6 percent. The difference of 26.1 percent was sixth-most in the league.
O’Connell followed the general path of a modern offense in Week 1 — using motion, more receivers and a higher rate of passing. It’s not a guarantee these trends or the Vikings’ success will continue, but through Week 1 it was a pretty good start.