The additions of free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins and play-caller John DeFilippo were supposed to put an already strong Vikings offense over the top in 2018. On paper, Minnesota’s offseason gambit looked like a coup: Cousins was a proven upper-echelon passer and represented a clear upgrade over 2017 starter Case Keenum, while DeFilippo—the former Eagles quarterbacks coach who’d just helped backup Nick Foles pick apart the Patriots in the Super Bowl—looked like the perfect offensive coordinator to succeed Pat Shurmur. Revered as a QB whisperer, DeFilippo was expected to keep the basic tenets of Minnesota’s scheme while adding a bevy of run-pass options and misdirection plays brought over from Philadelphia.
Fourteen weeks in, Cousins is slumping, DeFilippo’s out of a job, and the Vikings’ once-powerful offense looks nothing like the unit we saw last year. That’s left a team that many expected to be a Super Bowl favorite sitting at 6-6-1 and clinging to a half-game lead for the sixth seed in the NFC playoff picture. So what happened? Why has the Vikings offense regressed?
Minnesota’s embarrassing 21-7 loss to Seattle on Monday Night Football served as a microcosm for the team’s struggles over the past month—a stretch in which they’ve lost three of four, eclipsed 300 yards just once, and averaged 15.2 points per game (dropping their season-long average to 21.7, 20th in the NFL). DeFilippo’s play-calling, particularly on third down, was head-scratching; his schematic designs were far too predictable; and he failed to adjust to the Seahawks’ defensive game plan. Cousins looked skittish in the pocket, repeatedly missed open receivers downfield, and coughed up a fumble that led to a Seattle defensive touchdown. The offensive line was as ineffective as ever, surrendering a pair of sacks, three tackles for a loss, and seven quarterback hits. And the run game was again a nonfactor, gaining 77 yards on 21 totes at an average of 3.7 yards per carry, much to the chagrin of head coach Mike Zimmer, who’d recently taken to the media to complain about a lack of offensive balance. The end result was another game in which the Vikings offense looked out of sync, out of rhythm, and lacked any semblance of an identity.
That performance spelled doom for DeFilippo, whose meteoric rise as one of last winter’s hottest coordinator candidates (he was even considered a contender for a head-coaching job) preceded an equally abrupt fall. DeFilippo and Zimmer had what appeared to be philosophical differences about how the team should attack opposing defenses; while Zimmer stumped for a stronger commitment to running the ball, DeFilippo either didn’t care or didn’t trust the team’s talent-deficient offensive line, which ranks 31st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, 25th in stuffed rate (the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage), and tied for 29th in power success (percentage of runs on third or fourth down and two yards or less to go that achieved a first down or touchdown). That lack of confidence manifested on Monday in the form of several key decisions: DeFilippo opted for pass plays on four third downs with 3 yards to go or fewer. None of those passes were completed for a first down by the way, and the Vikings finished 2-of-10 on third downs on the day. On a crucial fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, when Minnesota was still within striking distance down just 3-0, DeFilippo dialed up a Latavius Murray run from the Seattle 40-yard line … and he was stuffed. Maybe he should’ve just kept passing it.
Seattle’s defense, which came into the game as a middle-of-the-pack unit (ranked 16th in DVOA), played perhaps its best game of the year, no doubt aided by Minnesota’s inability to make adjustments to what Seattle threw at them. The Seahawks frequently employed bracket coverage on the team’s two best receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, by trotting out six- and seven-defensive back “bandit” looks, and the Vikings were unable to get the team’s other players more involved. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had two catches for 7 yards. Laquon Treadwell had three snags for 16 yards. That was telling; and it wasn’t the first time the Vikings’ lack of adaptability showed up: The Patriots stifled Cousins and DeFilippo last week by employing “amoeba” looks on the defensive line, with most of their players standing up prior to the snap to make it difficult for Cousins and the offensive line to assign protections.
More concerning, though, was that DeFilippo’s scheme was just too predictable. Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner’s comments after the game were damning: “We knew what plays they were going to run, and we knew when they were going to run [them],” he said. “We just had a good beat on them.”
In fairness to DeFilippo, the Vikings also failed in execution. Even when Thielen, Diggs, or the team’s other pass catchers managed to get open, Cousins largely struggled to connect, either because of bad reads or missed throws. A two-play sequence on Minnesota’s second drive was a great example. On second down, Cousins panicked when pressure came from the edge, giving up on the chance to step into the pocket and hit a wide open Thielen, to instead turn around and pass it directly backward to running back Latavius Murray. I repeat: He turned around and threw the ball almost directly backward.
On the next play, Cousins badly missed Aldrick Robinson on a deep crossing route, throwing the ball down the middle instead of leading his receiver for what could’ve been a big gain.
Later, on perhaps the most crucial play of the night, with the Vikings facing a fourth-and-1 from the Seattle 1-yard line with the chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, Cousins first looked away from Thielen, who appeared to come open over the middle when his defender slipped, and then tried to thread a pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. The ball was thrown well behind Rudolph, and fell incomplete.
DeFilippo’s downfall in Minnesota was ultimately most closely linked to his decision to all but abandon the run game, steering the Vikings offense away from one of the core tenets of Zimmer’s vision: balance. After finishing second in rush attempts per game (31.3) and tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns (15) in 2017, Minnesota ranks 31st (21.1 carries per game) and tied for dead last (with just six rushing scores) in those categories this year, respectively. But while DeFilippo was the scapegoat for that lack of balance, the team’s front office certainly shares some of the blame, and their failure to add talent and depth to the offensive line over the offseason is going to make interim play-caller Kevin Stefanski’s job a difficult one going forward. It’s tough to imagine that a redoubled commitment to the run game is going to spark much improvement when the offensive line can’t run block.
That poor line play takes some of the blame off Cousins’s shoulders too. The 30-year-old veteran passer has missed some throws, sure, but constant pressure has a way of forcing mistakes from even the league’s best quarterbacks. Cousins has been under siege all year, trying to make plays behind an offensive line that’s surrendered a league-high 190 pressures and allowed pressure on 35 percent of their quarterback’s dropbacks, the third-highest rate, per Next Gen Stats. That pressure rate jumps to 52 percent on third downs, highest in the league. It’s little wonder Cousins has struggled on that crucial down.
Oh, and it doesn’t help that Minnesota still can’t find a reliable kicker.
With three games left on the schedule, it’s not too late for this Vikings squad to turn things around and make a playoff push. But it’s gut check time for Zimmer, Stefanski, and the Vikings’ underperforming offense: There’s no quick fix for the offensive line, and no way out of Cousins’s fully-guaranteed $84 million deal, so this team’s going to have to scheme their way out of this month-long slump with a MacGyver-like band-aid-and-paper-clip-type approach to hiding their flaws. Expect a heavier dose of early-down runs, for better or for worse, paired with an increase in play-action passing. Cousins has thrown off play-action on just 18.6 percent of his passes this year (tied for 30th per Pro Football Focus), a far cry from Keenum’s 28.7 percent play-action rate last year (fourth). With Thielen, Diggs, and an increasingly healthy Dalvin Cook, the Vikings aren’t hurting for playmaking talent, but Stefanski must find a way to work more deception into the scheme and keep defenses on their heels. From there, it’s up to the players to execute.