New coach O’Connell has Vikings taking ‘class on the grass’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The obvious question, at the end of the first offseason program under new coach Kevin O'Connell, is, "How are the Vikings looking?"

It's perhaps best asked with the follow-up question, "How much does it really matter?"

O'Connell's first set of organized team activities, and his initial mandatory minicamp as Vikings coach, might have revealed more about the team's drastic philosophical changes than it did about their on-field performance. During the five full-team practices open to reporters, players rarely practiced for more than 75 minutes, with some OTAs functioning like a passing camp. At times, O'Connell told the Vikings' linemen to work at half speed while keeping exterior players at full speed, emphasizing a player's thought process and technique over aggressive snaps that might leave players fatigued or injured.

"We'll have plenty of time to find out about our pass rush, to find out about our ability to protect full speed, and it'll be great work because I feel really good about both the offensive line and our defensive front," O'Connell said Wednesday. "So it's really a matter of working the situations, working two-minute. It's reps for me, calling the plays and seeing our guys respond to the things that I'm calling, [defensive coordinator] Ed [Donatell] calling plays, and then all of those full-speed adjustments that take place on the back end. Then the team periods ... you can demonstrate [you] not only know what to do but how to do it, without that strain to finish where so many guys are lost this time of year because we are just wearing helmets.

"You can say it's football and you can say, 'Go 11-on-11 full speed,' but you're putting your team at risk, in my opinion."

The coach repeatedly referred to the Vikings' offseason program as "class on the grass," and in an offseason with a new coaching staff and new defensive scheme, there was plenty to learn. At least in O'Connell's first set of full-team workouts, practices felt like a workshop more than a showcase.

"Coach made it very clear that no one is making [the team] or getting cut from the couple of practices that we are out on the field," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We want to pretty much be above-the-shoulders emphasis. We want to see how we learn on the fly. How do we learn when it's time to make a check? How do you adjust when offenses are shifting and you've got all the jet motions and things like that? This period was basically just a mental aspect of the game."

As the Vikings head into their six-week break before training camp, here's a look at what we learned about the team from OTAs and minicamp:

New defense a challenge for Cousins, too

The Vikings ended their final minicamp practice with a stilted set of two-minute drills during which all three quarterbacks — Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond and Sean Mannion — struggled to immediately find places they could put the ball. Chandon Sullivan broke up a Cousins pass for Adam Thielen in the red zone to end the first-team offense's drive, and Parry Nickerson intercepted Mond, returning the pass down the sideline and earning a raucous reception from the defense after Oli Udoh shoved him to the ground to end the play.

Donatell, who last worked under Vic Fangio in Denver, is bringing Fangio's popular scheme to Minnesota; the Vikings will often line up in a two-safety look before the snap and shift to something else, slowing down the quarterback's ability to diagnose coverages while pass rushers like Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith pursue him.

The Packers are among the many teams that run a variation of the scheme under defensive coordinator Joe Barry, meaning Cousins will see it Week 1. He said the opportunity to practice against it was beneficial for him; the Vikings are hoping his initial experience against it is the same one their opponents will have this fall.

"It doesn't help you to see the defense in the first couple steps because they're doing such a good job of making it muddy," Cousins said. "I'll get to my second step and I don't have a better answer than I did before the snap. Usually, you have your pre-snap look they will disguise, but the second you say, 'Hut,' they're going where they have to go. That's not the case [with this defense]."

Scheme gives players some freedom

The Cousins-Thielen connection has been one of the NFL's best in the red zone in recent years, and in the Vikings' final open OTA on June 1, Cousins threw a ball to Thielen's back shoulder that the receiver hauled in with a twisting, one-handed catch for a touchdown over Harrison Smith.

Do the Vikings coach Cousins to throw the ball there? "Absolutely not," O'Connell said. But the coach added he wants to give players enough flexibility to execute the scheme in ways that work for them.

"They're trying things out," O'Connell said. "We're teaching a system, but then they've got to take it, and that's that player ownership you guys have heard me talk about, where they can take something and then apply their experience together, both at the quarterback position and the other 10 guys around the quarterback offensively."

If the clock is a factor late in the game, O'Connell said, coaches might tell players an assignment needs to be executed exactly as it's drawn up. Beyond that, he's trying to give players room to operate in a manner they find comfortable.

"Ed's doing the same thing on the other side: 'Here's the scheme, here's what we have to make sure gets done. Then take it and go be playmakers,' " O'Connell said.

Vikings will open up the playbook with Hunter

During his first seven NFL seasons, Hunter lined up primarily at left end. The Vikings moved him to right end with Everson Griffen away from the team in 2018, and had several variations with how they used him — perhaps most notably when they lined Hunter and Griffen up inside during their wild-card playoff victory over the Saints after the 2019 season — but the bulk of his pass-rushing opportunities came out of a three-point stance on the left side of the defensive line.

That could change in 2022, with Hunter playing outside linebacker in the team's new 3-4 base defense. But even when the Vikings have four-down linemen in passing situations, they will likely move Hunter and Za'Darius Smith around, to get the kinds of mismatches Smith enjoyed in his 3½-sack game against the Vikings in 2019.

"You guys can look at my history and where I've been: I'm gonna put my best on your worst," said outside linebackers coach Mike Smith, who coached Za'Darius Smith in Green Bay. "Danielle loves it — you're gonna be over the center, you're gonna be over the guard. You're not playing just one side or the other, which at times they've been used to here. It doesn't work like that."

Pass-rushing depth worth watching

Given the fact Hunter and Za'Darius Smith played a combined seven regular-season games last year, the Vikings could need other pass rushers to emerge. Mike Smith sounded excited about the potential for players like D.J. Wonnum, Janarius Robinson and Patrick Jones, who's listed as an outside linebacker after being drafted as a defensive end a year ago.

"I'm going to tell you right now that Patrick Jones has the best get-off in the group, and it might not even be close right now," Mike Smith said. "J-Rob, the first thing you say about him is he's long. He's another guy who can scratch his ankles standing up. He's got the longest arms in the room. DJ is one of those guys that can just do it all. Probably the smartest kid in the room. ... They've got a lot to learn and a lot of them are still like rookies, but they've got huge potential and I'm very excited about that group."