There is one part of the 2021 Vikings that this year's team, while winning more games under a new coaching staff, wants to recreate against the Cardinals on Sunday.
Big pass plays, "explosives," as head coach Kevin O'Connell labels them in football jargon, have dried up on these Vikings. Coaches say they're capable of producing with the talent rostered, which remains mostly unchanged since the Vikings were among the top big-play threats in football the past two seasons. Minnesota ranked fourth in 2021 and seventh in 2020, averaging 3.6 completions for at least 20 yards per game in that span.
They're averaging just 2.5 such completions so far this season — ranking 27th leaguewide — with star receiver Justin Jefferson being the main, if not only, option. Jefferson has 11 of the Vikings' 15 big pass plays so far. Where's the supporting cast? Perhaps that's where coaches can adjust as Jefferson draws beaucoup defensive attention, O'Connell said.
"We've run into some situations where maybe the explosive pass game has been at times hard to come by," O'Connell said. "Just because of how we're being defended, and that's where maybe we need to feature the run game, feature other players besides just Justin [Jefferson] and Adam [Thielen], allow all five [targets] to come to life."
Diversifying the Vikings' deep targets might help create preferred looks for quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is more likely to take what the defense provides than force a pass and risk a turnover. Cousins has just two turnovers in a current four-game win streak.
As the NFL trade deadline looms, offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said coaches still have confidence in Thielen, K.J. Osborn and others to get open downfield. Observers just haven't seen it yet in 2022.
"We feel like we have plenty of guys that can win down the field," Phillips said. "Sometimes there's an opportunity where we could have taken a shot and didn't. Sometimes the protection, you know, becomes a factor with some of the longer developing plays."
"We're going to keep hunting those plays," Phillips added, "and Kirk is going to make good decisions. The thing you know about him is if we get the opportunity, the protection is there and we schemed it up well and called it at the right time, he'll make the throw. If it's muddy, then he'll put the ball in play. He's been pretty good at protecting the football, which has been a big part of us winning games."
The Dolphins defense played an aggressive style in the latest 24-16 win in Miami, but Cousins had just 175 passing yards and struggled to find open targets downfield. The second-quarter sack illustrated below shows how the Dolphins secondary stuck to Jefferson (#18) and Thielen (#19), and how Miami's pass rush helped when they didn't cover as well.
Wanted: Play-action shots
Osborn has been clocked running 4.4-second speeds in the 40-yard dash, and he was the fastest Vikings ball carrier in the Week 2 loss in Arizona last season. Osborn caught Cousins' first pass of the game, surpassing 20 miles per hour down the sideline on a 64-yard touchdown, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Despite what we've seen this season, Osborn has the juice to win deep.
The play-action shot took advantage of an aggressive Cardinals defense that is still coordinated by ex-Broncos head coach Vance Joseph, and maintains an attacking style.
"This is an aggressive defense," Cousins said. "You have to be aware of a lot of parts at all different levels of defense. I think they're smart players. I think they understand the importance of them trying to take the ball away. ... It was a good test against us last year as well."
Arizona's downhill defensive style is led by a 3-4 front featuring rangy inside linebackers in Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons — both first-round draft picks. But they haven't covered that well, and have been particularly susceptible to play-action passes and yards after the catch. The Rams, O'Connell's former team, eked out a 20-12 win against Arizona in Week 3, when the play-action game (9 of 10 for 157 yards, per Pro Football Focus) was the backbone.
The Rams also ran well — 20 carries for 100 yards and two scores — to keep Arizona guessing, which is especially helpful because Cardinals defenders like safety Budda Baker can arrive quickly if they know where the ball is going.
"They fly around," running back Dalvin Cook said. "Budda makes up for a lot on that defense. He's like a 12th player out there. He's a good player. Isaiah [Simmons], he's becoming his own. J.J. [Watt] up front, so we've got a task at hand in front of us, which is every week in this league. They play hard. We're looking for a dog fight."
O'Connell's Vikings still lean heavily on play-action passes — about 34% of Cousins' throws, fifth-most in the NFL — but they're not gaining chunks; Cousins' 6.9-yard average on play-action throws ranks 25th among qualified passers, per PFF, a fall from 2018-2021 when Cousins averaged at least 8.6 yards per play-action pass each season.
Catch and run chances
The Dolphins and Cardinals are similar in aggression, but different in scheme.
The Vikings just played one of the most man-to-man heavy defenses in Miami. But Arizona runs predominantly zone coverage. The Cardinals, according to PFF, actually run almost exclusively zone coverage at over 90%. Their problem has been that they're not great at rallying and tackling; the Cardinals have missed 62 tackle attempts this season, ranking as the seventh-most in the NFL.
Combine zone coverage and poor tackling and you get a Cardinals defense that has allowed the most yardage — over 1,100 yards — after the catch so far. That leaves Jefferson and Vikings players eager to face them.
"You never really know what they're going to actually do until you get to the game," Jefferson said. "We've been watching film and trying to dial up what they do and what they're trying to do, hopefully they play that when we go into the game."
Even if the Vikings can't protect long enough for deep shots, there should be opportunities for chunk plays against Arizona.
"They don't press as much as some of the teams we've seen recently," Thielen said. "But I think each week teams are playing us differently than we see them tape. It could be one of those things, so you just kind of prepare for everything."