After a 16-6 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 4, the Minnesota Vikings were at a crossroads. Their $84 million quarterback Kirk Cousins hadn’t lived up to the price tag through his first 20 starts in Vikings purple. Their wide receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, were openly upset about the offense. It seemed this team was at the brink of tearing itself apart.
Now, almost four weeks removed from that Bears loss, it appears the Vikings are back on track — and there’s a simple explanation for it.
The Vikings are finally delivering on their promise of more play-action
The Vikings have won three straight games. During that time, Cousins has thrown for 325.3 yards per game and the offense has averaged 36 points. However, through the first four weeks of the season, the Vikings’ passing game was subpar. Kirk Cousins was averaging just 183.8 yards per game and the offense wasn’t scoring much, only averaging 21 points.
What made these numbers even more disappointing was the Vikings talking a big game in the offseason. Their offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, spoke about the need to incorporate more play-action and bootlegs into the offense, as Cousins excels in those plays.
Play-action passes eliminate the need to scan the entire field and throw into tight windows. When you pretend to sink the ball into the running back, the linebackers (and safeties at times) react to the look of a run, which allows big windows to open up in the secondary between the linebackers and the safeties.
Quarterbacks most often just scan one side of the field and make their decisions, unlike a straight dropback. Routes that take time to develop favor excellent wide receivers, like Diggs and Thielen, who can work their route-running magic with precision footwork into open spaces on the field, often behind a safety who’s eying the run and the crossing route.
We see that here with Diggs against the Eagles:
Quarters coverage means the safeties are keying the run to the crossing route. Diggs runs right past everyone for a touchdown.
Yards per attempt and completion rate are always higher on these concepts as well. There are open-wide areas on the field to run after the catch, and the action typically lets the line block longer to allow for deeper routes. More teams should run play-action passes.
The No. 1 reason for the Vikings to run play-action pass is Cousins
Cousins excels in these schemes. Let’s go back to 2016. Cousins completed 73 percent of his play-action attempts to only 53.5 percent of normal dropbacks. By nature, you’d complete more play-action passes, because they tend to cut down on issues in the pass game. But, a 20 percent drop in completion rate is a huge difference.
In 2017, his numbers were closer: 66 percent on play-action pass and 62.7 percent on dropbacks. The numbers were eye-opening again in 2018. Cousins led the NFL in completion percentage on play-action pass with almost 78 percent of those passes being completed, as compared to 64 percent of dropback passes.
The Vikings fell short in play-action through those first four weeks. They attempted only 30 of those passes, for 197 yards and 6.6 yards per attempt. Their EPA, expected points added, on these passes was an absolutely brutal -1.3.
So not only were the Vikings not calling enough play-action passes, they weren’t successful. The design of the plays wasn’t working and Cousins wasn’t taking the chances on these throws when they opened up.
After their loss against the Bears, Cousins apologized for his poor play and vowed to play better, which he has. The biggest reason? Yep, you guessed it. More play-action passes.
In the past three weeks, Cousins has attempted 39 play-action passes, completing 29 of them. That’s six more attempts than the next-highest quarterback over that time, the Colts’ Jacoby Brissett. Cousins has thrown for 501 yards, 12.8 per attempt and six touchdowns on those passes.
His EPA, which is a great tool to determine success and future success, is 31.3 (!!!!!!) on play-action passes over the past three weeks. The next-closest over the same time period is Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, with an EPA of 16.7 on play-action pass attempts.
Here’s an example of a throw Cousins doesn’t attempt if it were a normal dropback. First, the window doesn’t open up until late because the route takes time to develop. Diggs is able to work the corner, widen him, and then quickly make a move back to the middle of the field where no one is:
Featuring more play-action pass attempts is a fabulous change to the offense, and Stefanski and Cousins should be praised for it. We often lament that it feels like teams never make scheme adjustments, so the Vikings deserve much credit for this. The offense is full of confidence, even going for a long play-action bomb to seal the game against the Lions in Week 7.
I don’t think the Vikings attempt to close the game out in this manner if it had been the first month of the season.
Now that they’ve found their groove with the play-action, we’re finally seeing the Vikings’ offense as it was meant to be all season.