How has the Vikings' offense excelled without Justin Jefferson?

EAGAN, Minn. -- The sky, coach Kevin O'Connell said recently, was "never falling," at least not inside the Minnesota Vikings' locker room. It didn't crash when All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson injured his right hamstring in Week 5, nor when quarterback Kirk Cousins ruptured his right Achilles three weeks later, and not when backup Jaren Hall (concussion) gave way to emergency quarterback Joshua Dobbs six days after that.

It took a beat to regain their footing, but the Vikings have actually increased their scoring output by nearly three points per game during their five-game winning streak when Jefferson has been sidelined. Over that period, the team ranks No. 11 in the NFL in offensive points per game (23.2), No. 6 in both offensive efficiency and offensive expected points added (EPA) and tied for No. 7 in yards per game (253.8).

A closer look reveals that while the Vikings tried to activate their running game in the absence of so many important skill players, they have instead found ways to maintain and elevate their passing scheme. Dobbs' mobility has added an additional layer in their past two games, but the larger source of their offensive success during the winning streak is clear: In the games Jefferson has missed, the Vikings have compiled the NFL's seventh-most passing yards per game (263.2) and lead the league with a 78.8 Total Quarterback Rating.

As Jefferson moves closer to his return, the Vikings have proved to have a durable passing scheme that can survive significant personnel turnover. Asked about excelling in Jefferson's absence this week, O'Connell noted a handful of players who stepped up -- particularly tight end T.J. Hockenson and receiver Jordan Addison -- but spoke in schematic rather than heroic terms.

"As far as the philosophy on it," he said, "I really look at it like it was, 'What can we do to maximize our ability to find space in zones and attack man coverage when we get it? How do we build a world where we can live in both worlds simultaneously, and then how do we live in that world with maybe a quarterback that hasn't been here very long but truly activate every facet of what we want to accomplish?'"

O'Connell and his staff built the Vikings' offense around maximizing Jefferson's chances to make plays, and he was leading the NFL in receiving yards per game (135.8) before his injury. Conventional wisdom would have suggested a shift toward the running game in his absence, and the Vikings have in fact increased their carries per game by running backs by 35% during the winning streak.

The production, however, decreased significantly. Yards per carry by running backs dropped from 4.5 before Jefferson's injury to 2.9, and in the past five games, the Vikings have the NFL's second-worst offensive EPA on those plays. They spent most of that time toggling between starting tailback Alexander Mattison and backup Cam Akers, but after Akers' torn left Achilles tendon and with Mattison in concussion protocol, it's possible they'll turn to second-year runner Ty Chandler on Sunday night against the Denver Broncos (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

Even so, the Vikings have long since established more reliable methods for moving the ball. They have increased targets to Addison by 30%, but Hockenson's surge has been particularly relevant. During the winning streak, Hockenson leads all NFL tight ends in targets per game (11.2), receptions per game (8.2) and receiving first downs per game (4.8). Sunday against the Saints, he became just the second NFL tight end since 1978 to catch at least 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in a single half, doing it all with a painful rib/oblique injury that had him doubled over on multiple occasions.

His 28-yard touchdown reception provides particular insight into how the Vikings have succeeded without Jefferson. On the play, Hockenson lined up in the left slot, ran 12 yards downfield against the Saints' two-shell zone coverage and then noticed safety Lonnie Johnson Jr. leaning toward his outside. Hockenson cut inside, and Dobbs lofted a pass over linebacker Demario Davis to hit him down the seam.

Hockenson called the route a "KO special," referring to O'Connell, whom he said has provided the option to "freelance" so he can find open space in zones. It was not a surprise to Dobbs, however. A few minutes earlier, Dobbs had initiated a sideline discussion focused on options against the zone "just to confirm that my eyes [were] going to be in the right place," he said.

"[The Saints are] usually in that defense to prevent you from taking shots, especially down the seam," Dobbs said. "So for him to be open, get into that little seam, and for me to put the ball over, it was a huge play."

Hockenson was perhaps best suited among Vikings pass-catchers to capitalize on Dobbs' ascendance. Both spend their offseasons in Nashville, Tennessee, and have participated in throwing sessions together that have given them at least some familiarity with one another.

"He kind of knows how I move," Hockenson said, celebrating the kind of serendipity it takes for a team to get better when its best players are on the sideline.