EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coaches and players have answered endless questions about the makeup, identity and execution of their new-look offense during the first six weeks of the season.
Will there always be a run-first mentality? How can they get their two 1,000-yard receivers going? Will the pendulum eventually swing toward the middle, mixing in the run and pass?
One thing has remained consistent: Minnesota’s ability to generate big gains.
In all but the first week of the season, the Vikings have led the NFC North in yards per play and average 6.3 on the season. Minnesota ranks third overall in the NFL in that category, right behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys, two teams it will face in consecutive weeks on the road to start November.
A major portion of that number derives from Minnesota’s explosive plays, from Dalvin Cook's home-run plays on the ground or receptions out of the backfield (his 8.2 yards per target is the most in the league, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, with a minimum of 20 targets) to the deep balls Stefon Diggs hauled in for touchdowns on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
How did the Vikings, who boast the seventh-ranked offense, get here with the doubt and uncertainty around this unit pushed to the back burner after two wins?
It wasn’t a lack of efficacy. It was a lack of execution.
"I stood here, I believe it was after the Bears game (in Week 4), and I felt there were a lot of questions about our lack of effectiveness, and I said, ‘Honestly, it boils down to we’ve missed a couple of shots in our play-action game,’" quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "If we had hit those, I think we’d be feeling a lot differently. I would attribute it to the play-action hits that we’ve had. Again, the explosive runs were there from the beginning, so, yeah, you could say explosive runs, but that’s been there.
"We’ve hit some screens, but I think we’ve also done that throughout. So it’s just been a couple plays here and there that are big, and they end up kind of playing statistics a certain direction."
Behind many of the explosive plays are two elite-level receivers hauling in critical gains. Diggs and Adam Thielen transform Minnesota’s offense from a very good one into a very dangerous one, and as the division race heats up and a slew of important road games lie on the horizon, these two will be the determining factor in allowing the Vikings to see just how far they can go.
Judging by the Vikings’ game plan, it’s evident that the coaching staff feels the same way.
After posting the highest rush percentage (58%) in the league through Week 3, Minnesota shifted the direction of its playcalling. The Vikings have thrown the ball nearly 10 more times per game the last three weeks compared to the first three weeks, calling for passes on 56 percent of plays from Week 4 on compared to 42 percent in Weeks 1-3.
A big part of their success comes through the play-action game. Against the Giants, Cousins’ average yards per attempt on play-action was 13.9, nearly double (6.8) what it was on such passes in the first four games. Thielen’s third-quarter touchdown came off play-action. Diggs, too, has seen his production spike when getting more involved in this area. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Diggs has turned seven targets into five catches for 99 yards and two TDs off play-action in Weeks 4-6. He had one catch for 31 yards in Weeks 1-3.
Cousins has also gotten his receivers involved earlier over the past two weeks. Thielen’s 121 yards in the first half against the Giants was the second-most receiving yards by a Vikings player in a half in 10 seasons. Diggs has gotten off to a faster start since the Chicago game, having been targeted on 28 percent of his routes in the first half (a 5% increase from Weeks 1-3), which has yielded eight catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
"We’ve had some success the past couple weeks throwing the ball," Diggs said. "We look forward to building on that because if you can run the ball and throw the ball efficiently, as far as depending on play-action and however you want to dress it up, if you can do both of those things really well and play good defense, you’ll be playing a lot of football."
After quiet starts to the season, Diggs and Thielen have proven to be a major part of the offense with six touchdowns between them over the past two games. The offense turning to the passing game more is notable just about everywhere. For example, Diggs was targeted four times against Philadelphia on passes that traveled 20-plus air yards. He was targeted five times on such throws in the first five weeks of the season.
Digs' 19.2 air yards per target, according to Next Gen, are the highest in the NFL with a catch rate of 11.2% above expectation. Thielen is catching just about everything in his direction these last two weeks, boasting a 19% catch rate above expectation of any player with at least 10 targets (81.3% catch rate, 62.2% expected catch rate).
Cousins and his top receivers have taken advantage of the defenses they have seen to this point. But the impact of Thielen and Diggs will be tested against some upcoming defenses, starting on Sunday against Detroit.
While the Lions have allowed 20 plays of 25 yards (16 passes), the second most in the NFL, their ability to keep top play-makers in check comes in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s traditional bracket coverage with safety help on the back end.
"That's what they do," Diggs said. "From the games that I've seen since I've been here, they've had their guys just pretty much pick two guys, 'You cover him, you cover him.' That's what I've seen. I expect the same thing. If they switch it up, we're going to have to adjust on the fly."
How the Vikings can beat these aggressive matchups they expect to face in man coverage depends on both receivers. Minnesota is of the few teams with a legitimate top-tier duo. Forcing teams to pick their poison against Diggs or Thielen is what may allow this offense to flourish in ways still to be seen this season.