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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Personnel, play-action and the ways to maximize Kirk Cousins’ skills

By Matthew Coller

Jalen Ramsey was right about Kirk Cousins.

In a GQ article in which the Jacksonville Jaguars’ star cornerback ripped on quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Josh Allen, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger, Ramsey had a little side note about the Minnesota Vikings’ starting QB.

“I think he’s good,” Ramsey said. “I think he’s a winner. He’s a hell of a competitor. Coming off the play action, he’s the best quarterback in the league. Play action passing, he’s a hell of a quarterback.”

Among quarterbacks with more than 100 play-action throws last season, Cousins had the second highest quarterback rating, only behind Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota. The Vikings’ quarterback threw the ball 112 times and racked up a 66.1 percent completion percentage, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and 9.4 yards per attempt.

When he wasn’t using play-action, Cousins’ numbers slipped. His non-play-action rating ranked 17th among QBs who played the full season.

On Thursday, Cousins went into great detail about his success on play-action plays.

“It takes everybody,” he said. “The game plan has to be good plays. You can run play actions but if they’re bad route concepts, poorly designed protections, you can have a great fake and have all the intentions of making the right throw, it’s not going to work. If the plays are designed correctly and then your protection is loose, guys aren’t holding up. The running back doesn’t have a good mesh. Even as a quarterback, you can do all you want to do, it’s not going to work. When the line can protect, the concept is good, the running back has a great mesh, the receivers can run with speed and create separation. That is when a play action offense can really be effective. It takes all 11 plus the scheme to really come together and make it work.”

In Washington, he often had all of the above working. Under terrific offensive minds like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Jay Gruden, Cousins was routinely operating an ahead-of-the-curve offense. Last year, play-action plays helped Cousins behind an oft-injured offensive line that allowed the most sack yards lost of any team in the NFL.

Teams that are effective in play-action give defenses a lot to think about. Safety Anthony Harris explained that the toughest to prepare against are those that vary looks.

Here’s what Harris focuses on when trying to find tip offs to whether the opponent is actually running or going play-action.

“From team to team on a weekly basis, personnel, sometimes it might be a guy who particularly doesn’t block and they’ll use him as a blocker, so they’ll put him in a blocking formation, which often times is play-action, he’s not there to actually block, he’s there to go out in a route,” Harris said. “It’s down-and-distance, who’s in the game, where they’re aligned, the depth of the running back, whether under center he’s a little bit tighter to the quarterback it’s pass protection or in gun if he’s deeper than the quarterback, he might be looking for a draw. If he’s a little bit up in front, you might be looking for pass. Little tips like that you try to combine all those together to get a jump start on whether it’s run or pass.”

As Cousins continued, he explained the different assignments that his teammates up front must execute with proper technique in order to sell play-action.

“If the right guard on a run play is firing off the ball and on a play action pass is setting, I can fake as hard as I want, but the linebacker is going to feel that difference in the offensive lineman’s demeanor,” Cousins. “Making sure your linemen are firing off with low pad levels, even if they’re not going down the field to make a block to still give that illusion initially really helps.”

One of the ways Washington (and the 2017 Minnesota Vikings, whose QB Case Keenum ranked sixth in play-action passer rating) varied their looks was by using different types of personnel. Cousins operated out of three-receiver sets with one running back and one tight end on 66 percent of plays, but also used two TEs 23 percent of the time and mixed in a handful of other groupings, according to the website SharpFootballStats.

Knowing that opponents are looking at personnel for hints, Cousins said sometimes the best recipe is sticking with the same grouping over and over.

“I’ve always looked at personnel as an interesting part of football because defensive coordinators are always going to call their game plans off personnel,” he said. “I mean that’s what they have to go off of before they call their plays, ‘what’s the personnel on the field?’ That’s really all they have to go off of besides down and distance. So that’s the tools they use.

“Anytime you can give them a personnel that doesn’t tell them much, doesn’t give them any insight, you’re helping yourself. But some of the best teams I’ve been around are teams that can sit in 11 or 12 or 21 personnel the entire game, never change it and the defensive personnel has no idea what’s coming because you’re just in the same personnel and multiple situations.”

It’s hard to imagine the Vikings sticking with the same personnel for an entire game. Players like No. 2 tight end David Morgan, fullback CJ Ham and receiver Jarius Wright were vital parts of Pat Shurmur’s consistent change-ups. In Week 17, he randomly started using a sixth offensive lineman in all types of situations.

“I think that the key is you can vary your personnels but if you come one dimensional before when you’re in each individual one you’re not really making it hard on the defense,” Cousins said. “What’s great is when you can be in a certain personnel grouping and a defense has no idea if it’s run, pass, play-action, screen, deep-shot, check-down they just don’t know because you can do so much from the individual groupings.”

An example of running unexpected plays out of certain packages would be Pat Shurmur’s third-and-short play calling in which he ran screens to tight end Kyle Rudolph out of multiple tight end packages. Not only does the personnel suggest run play, but Rudolph is an unlikely candidate to get a screen pass.

Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s former team the Philadelphia Eagles had nearly identical numbers of three-WR and two-TE sets as Washington did in 2017 and both used highly varied splits with the receivers and tight ends — including sometimes sending a running back or tight end out as a receiver.

One of the major advantages to mixing personnel is that the opponent’s defense usually react by bringing more linebackers to match with tight ends or more defensive backs to take on the excess of receivers.

“Sometimes we match personnel and it requires it safety to come down into the box, whether that’s to be more physical or come out and declare his coverage whether he’s in man or zone on one of the tight ends particularly,” Harris said. “It forces us to come out and be balanced. The down guy has to be stout in the run as well as being effective in the past.”

While the QB’s supporting cast, play design, personnel and situation tend to dictate success of play-action plays, Cousins is also extremely diligent about studying his role in the process. That includes watching himself back from different angles.

“I think you want to watch tape of yourself from the camera angle being at linebacker level,” Cousins said. “You want to see what it looks like from a linebacker’s point of view, my action, and then what does my run game look like from that point of view and how dissimilar or similar are they.”

On the play below, all of the elements combine for success.

Washington used two tight ends with two receivers inside the numbers and the running back was lined up deep in the backfield, giving a run look. Washington showed run with their blocking scheme, which caused the Kansas City linebacker and safety to hesitate close to the line of scrimmage. That opened up Cousins’ receiver coming across the field. He makes an on-the-money throw.

The Vikings will be looking to duplicate plays like this over and over in 2018.

The post Personnel, play-action and the ways to maximize Kirk Cousins’ skills appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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