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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings offense finds the right fixes in Stefanski’s debut

By Matthew Coller

MINNEAPOLIS — Somewhere Pat Shurmur was smiling during the first quarter of Sunday’s game.

In the Minnesota Vikings’ three-touchdown first quarter, interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski checked off all of the Shurmur boxes.

Outside runs and screen passes to Dalvin Cook? Check.

Quarterback under center running play-action? Check.

Using multiple tight ends and the fullback to create personnel mismatches? Check.

Helping the much-maligned offensive line by moving the quarterback around and changing launch points? Check.

You could have predicted that the Vikings would find some of their offensive groove when facing one of the worst defensive teams in the NFL at US Bank Stadium, but the Miami Dolphins looked like they were matching up against the late-80s San Francisco 49ers in the Vikings’ 41-17 win.

The Vikings opened the game with the genius strategy of giving their most dynamic playmaker Dalvin Cook the ball. He ran for six yards and then busted out on a screen for a 27-yard game.

As simple as those two events may be, former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo struggled throughout the entire year to get Cook going in the run game or on screens. Over the last two weeks, Cook only gained 50 yards on 13 receptions. When he did have rushing success against the Patriots, DeFilippo bailed on the run game.

Stefanski did not make the same mistake. At the end of the first quarter, Cook had 61 yards rushing and Latavius Murray added 36 more. Both scored touchdowns on plays in which CJ Ham — the mostly-ignored fullback — led the way.

Throughout the year the Vikings offensive line has often been criticized, but Stefanski insured that quarterback Kirk Cousins was rarely found stuck in one place in the pocket. On the first drive, he rolled out and found Stefon Diggs wide open in the back of the end zone to put the Vikings up seven.

Cousins finished the first quarter with a perfect quarterback rating.

When head coach Mike Zimmer talked several weeks ago about the “volume” of plays, insinuating that DeFilippo’s offense had been too complicated, it was clear that he wanted to see much more of the straight-forward things that they did well in 2017 return.

As the game went on, more ‘17 staples came out. A quick pass to Adam Thielen when the Dolphins’ cornerback was playing off coverage, running five-wideouts in one instance and firing the ball to Stefon Diggs for a chunk of yards.

The Vikings needed desperately to do everything right from a schematic standpoint because Unexplanably Bad Kirk came out to play in the second quarter. Driving into Dolphins territory, he flung a screen pass in Diggs’ direction, but it was easily picked off by rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick, who scampered into the end zone for the fifth defensive touchdown allowed by Cousins this year.

Cousins also took the lead league for turnovers by a QB.

His miscue explains exactly what Zimmer had been trying to preach about running more often and making the offense easier for Cousins. The Vikings’ franchise quarterback isn’t going to be Dan Marino. His shortcomings can kill games and his strengths aren’t strong enough to make up for any weakness. Basically, the Vikings’ strategy from here on out will have to be to treat Cousins like they did Case Keenum.

The Vikings offense did draw some boos after a three-and-out early in the third quarter, but the frustration was equally pointed at the defense giving up a 75-yard touchdown run and watching a 21-0 lead shrink to 21-17.

Stefanski’s group then failed to finish a drive in which they were set up just outside of the red zone on a Marcus Sherels punt return. Dan Bailey’s 36-yard field goal put them back up seven.

The next drive saw Cousins get sacked and Pat Elflein get flagged for illegal hands to the face. Stefanski could only paint over the shortcomings up front for so long.

The play caller also surprisingly got away from the under-center throws by Cousins, routinely using shotgun plays in the second half.

But in 2017 fashion, the Vikings defense stepped up and took control of the game late. On back-to-back drives, they sacked Ryan Tannehill and forced Miami punts.

Stefanski then went back to some of the strategies that worked in the first half, hitting on a play-action throw to Tyler Conklin for 33 yards on third-and-1 and dumping off on a rollout pass to Kyle Rudolph for a first down inside the red zone.

Situational football had been a major issue under DeFilippo as the Vikings were one of the league’s worst teams on third-and-short and ranked 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage. Early in the game the Vikings finished drives, but required another field goal to start the fourth quarter after Cousins was sacked on third-and-4.

The Minnesota offense’s lack of finishing ability didn’t matter a lick since the defense was having a sack festival in the second half. Mackensie Alexander closed out a Miami drive by taking down Tannehill on third down with 12 minutes left in the fourth.

Up by two scores, Stefanski went to run-the-clock mode, grinding away on the ground with Cook until third down. Then Cousins found his favorite deep threat in Aldrick Robinson for a 40-yard touchdown dagger.

In the end, the Vikings’ offense wasn’t perfect and they gave a mediocre Dolphins team more chances than they deserved, but Stefanski went back to the concepts that worked . He handed the ball to Cook more times than at any point all season. He found ways to protect Cousins. He spread the ball around to both tight ends and got a big play out of the No.3 reciever.

All of these things were lacking in the previous five weeks.

The Vikings finished the day with over 200 yards rushing, an impressive 8.6 yards per pass play, catches by six different receivers and touchdowns on four of six trips to the red zone (field goals on the other two).

We may not know until the postseason whether any of this could make the Vikings an actual contender — next week they have a lowly Detroit team — but if you are judging Stefanski’s process against Miami, it’s clear they have a better chance to be dangerous in January now than before he took over play calling duties.

The post Vikings offense finds the right fixes in Stefanski’s debut appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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