The Vikings’ play style, a deep dive

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The Vikings’ 2021 season has raised plenty of concerns so far. And the team’s play style has been one of the biggest.

Way too often, the Vikings play a style of football that lends itself to being overly conservative. Mike Zimmer tends to coach a style akin to the early 1990s — run the football and play stout defense.

That strategy makes it harder to put opposing teams away. It epitomizes the “defense wins championships” mantra. But what championships do the Zimmer-era Vikings have to show for this approach?

Yes, you still need to play good defense, but the offense is what will take you to the promised land. Zimmer, however, hasn’t evolved and it is evident by the way his team plays.

So just how conservative is Zimmer?

In context, the Vikings probably still should have punted in three of the six situations, but the trend is alarming. Consistently punting on the road with the opposing offense dominating your defense is alarming.

Let’s take a deeper look:

Just because the Vikings won, doesn't mean they made the right call

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

Another example of the conservative trends of Zimmer is the Seattle game in week 3. Up 10 with just under five minutes to play, the Vikings opted to kick a field goal instead of going for a 4th-and-goal from the one. Why is it a big deal?

By going for it and missing, your win percentage is only 1% lower than what it would have been if you made the field goal. Scoring a touchdown, however, makes the win a certainty.

Second down success

Photo: AP Photo/Stacy Bengs

What does this have to do with Klint Kubiak unlocking the offense? Zimmer’s conservative style is a major factor in preventing it.

2021

Second down

First half

Second half

EPA

0.228

-0.133

Dropback EPA

0.437

-0.076

Rush EPA

0.04

-0.228

Success rate

47.40%

37.30%

2021

3rd and 4th/1st Half

3rd and 4th/2nd half

EPA

0.387

0.224

Dropback EPA

0.462

-0.053

Rush EPA

-0.101

-1.226

Success Rate

50

39.6

Ben Baldwin’s rbsdm.com is where all the data derives from, and the tweet below has all of it charted on a plane with the other teams in the league:

Second down has been a thorn in the side of fans and analysts alike. The Vikings treat it as a random down in a vacuum, instead of a turning point. What you do on second down sets up the success rate of your possession changing downs, which is why the team should be more aggressive in their approach.

Conclusion from this?

Photo: Katie Stratman/USA TODAY Sports

The data shows it: the Vikings, so far in 2021, are far more efficient and effective in the first half on second down, as opposed to the second half. That effectiveness showed positive growth translating to third and fourth down in EPA, dropback EPA and success rate, while only seeing a regression in rush EPA. In the second half, there was similar growth from second down to third and fourth down, but the base data for second down was way lower. The worst stat of them all was a rush EPA on 3rd and 4th down of -1.226, which is last in the NFL.

2020 was the inverse

Photo: Brad Rempel.USA TODAY Sports

To better understand the data and trends of the Cousins-led Vikings offense, I took a look at 2020 as well.

2020

First down

First half

Second half

EPA

-0.043

0.093

Dropback EPA

0.03

0.193

Rush EPA

-0.124

-0.03

Success rate

48.80%

48.30%

2020

Third and fourth/first half

Third and fourth/second half

EPA

0.012

0.166

Dropback EPA

-0.083

0.216

Rush EPA

0.341

0

Success rate

47.10%

43.50%

The trends make a lot of sense when you compare 2020 to 2021. Last season, the Vikings — with Gary Kubiak as the team’s offensive coordinator — were in games early and spent the first half running their standard, conservative offense. With a porous defense, they had to air it out to either stay in the game or come back, leading to a spike across the board. With the 2021 Vikings, things have remained the same, but instead, the trends have reversed. Klint Kubiak has been airing the ball out more early with success. In the second half, you see the Zimmer influence creep in after halftime.

Kubiak and Cousins

Photo: AP Photo/Stacy Bengs, File

PFF’s Eric Eager shares an interesting tidbit about Klint Kubiak’s play calling. Over the last two games, you can see the numbers decrease the last two weeks.

2021

Full game

Weeks 1-3

Weeks 4-5

EPA

0.14

-0.186

Dropback EPA

0.201

-0.086

Rush EPA

-0.127

-0.35

Success Rate

46.30%

34.10%

The last piece of the puzzle is Cousins. As the quarterback, he is the one person that affects things the most. As we focus on second down again, Cousins’ numbers line up very well with the data gathered on a team level.

Kirk Cousins 2021

Second down/first half

Second down/second half

EPA

0.418

0.057

CPOE

-0.7

-8.3

Air Yards

3.7

8.1

Success Rate

54.5

45.9

Even though his air yards/attempt are not great in the first half, it wasn’t solely due to check downs. The Vikings offense was creatively getting players the ball in space and getting the ball out quickly. This was by design to mitigate the pass rush’s effectiveness, especially with Rashod Hill starting at left tackle.

In the second half, the numbers regressed just like the rest of the offense. The second down play-calling has been rough. Running the ball consistently on second and long with the occasional drop-back pass has led to poor results.

Let Cousins loose

Photo: AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn

The Vikings’ offense has not deployed play-action as frequently this season. In this last table, we have the play-action numbers in 2020 and 2021.

Cousins on play-action

2020

2021

Play-action %

28.7

20.4

PFF grade

81.1

71.3

ADOT

10

7.1

Completion %

62.6

69.7

The Vikings have utilized play-action on 8.3% fewer plays than 2020 and have worse results overall. Cousins’ completion percentage is higher, but this choice lowers his PFF grade and the big-play potential of the offense.

The Vikings offense thrived in 2020 with play-action shot plays down the field, something the Klint Kubiak offense has not tried as much.

After just five weeks of football, the main takeaway from the Klint Kubiak offense is this: let Cousins cook.

All of the data suggests that if Klint Kubiak sticks to putting the ball in Cousins’ hands and letting him run the offense, it will give the Vikings the best chance for success. Here is the ideal focus:

  1. Increased aggressiveness on second down

  2. Utilize play-action more frequently

  3. Run the ball in smarter situations

If we see all of these things from the Vikings moving forward, the team can fix its offensive woes. It won’t be perfect, however: Cousins is still too conservative on a play-by-play basis, but his success as a deep-ball passer has potential.

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