With no real off-season, not much coverage of training camp, and no pre-season games, it’s pretty difficult to get any hints as to what the Vikings may be installing this season on either side of the ball. Most signs point to new installations being delayed due to practice time constraints, but with a new offensive coordinator, there are bound to be some changes.
And when it comes to Gary Kubiak’s offense, there is a history, including what the Vikings did last year with his scheme and Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator.
So, starting there and making some inferences in terms of the differences between Kubiak and Stefanski, along with the changes in Vikings personnel, we may be able to draw some conclusions as to what Gary Kubiak has in store for the Vikings offense.
What We Learned From Last Season
I did a piece a year ago last spring on the history and key elements of Kubiak’s scheme, and that largely played out in the Vikings offense last year. For example, the percentage of plays Kirk Cousins ran from under-center (vs. shotgun) went up dramatically, from 22% in 2018 to 50% in 2019. Similarly, the percentage of passes involving play-action went from 20.8% (near the bottom of the league) in 2018 to 31.4% (near the top of the league) in 2019.
The Vikings also ran a high percentage of double-tight-end sets (12, 22 personnel groups) compared to the rest of the league, and not nearly as many 3+ WR sets.
Breaking It Down By Personnel Groups
There are several different offensive personnel groups, which are given two-digit names. The first digit represents how many running backs are in the group, and the second digit represents how many tight ends. So, for example, 22 personnel indicates 2 RBs and 2 TEs in the group. The remainder, subtracting from 5, is how many wide receivers are in the group – in this case 1.
Matt Bowen at ESPN broke down, behind the ESPN+ pay wall, which teams used each personnel group the most often, least often, and which teams had the most success with each group. I used the Sharp Football database to get more detailed information on the Vikings, breaking down their 2019 season by personnel group, and filtering out some garbage: plays when the offense was up or down by over 22+ points, and when yards-to-go was over 20.
A play is considered “successful” if it gains 40% of the yards-to-go on first down, 60% of the yards-to-go on 2nd down, or 100% of the yards-to-go on 3rd or 4th down.
Here is what I found:
11 Personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
This is by far the most popular personnel group used in the NFL, with an average of 60% of offensive plays being run out of this personnel group last year. But not for the Vikings. The Vikings used this personnel group on only 22% of their plays last season, easily the lowest percentage in the NFL. Next lowest was 36%. Several teams used this group 70+% of the time.
But although the Vikings didn’t use this personnel group nearly as much as other teams, it still represented a large number of snaps (201) , and they were also the most productive team in the league passing with this personnel group, averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt. They were 5th in run productivity, at 5.4 yards-per-carry.
Overall their successful play rate with this personnel group was 45%, which is a little low (46% pass, 45% run). They ran the ball 41% out of this group, passing 59% of the time.
12 Personnel (1 RBs, 2 TE, 2 WRs)
This 2 TE set personnel group was the 2nd most common in the NFL last year, as 2 TE sets have become more popular. 21% of NFL plays were run out of this personnel group.
But the Vikings used this personnel group the 2nd most often of any team in the league at 35% of total offensive snaps. Only the Eagles used it more often. This was the most used personnel group for the Vikings last season.
The Vikings had the highest frequency of success in this personnel group (49% overall, 51% pass, 45% run) among the main ones used, but average yards gained were lower than 11 personnel at 7.6 yards per passing attempt and 4.0 yards per rushing attempt.
The Vikings passed 66% of the time out of this group, and ran 34% of the time.
21 Personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs)
This is the classic “pro” personnel group, that used to be the most popular, but not as much these days in the NFL. Only 8% of offensive plays were run from this personnel group last year.
But the Vikings used it on 23% of their offensive plays last year, 2nd most in the league, as one of the teams that use a fullback more regularly. It was also the 2nd most used personnel group for the Vikings last season.
This was also a very successful personnel group for the Vikings last season, with 47% success rate. They averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt, and 4.8 yards per carry – both very healthy numbers. Passer rating on these plays was 112.0.
The key to success with this group may have been that the Vikings were 41% pass, 59% run out of this personnel group, making it more difficult for a defense to mark a tendency, and most likely play-action was pretty heavy out of this group as well, which was probably more likely to get defenses to ‘bite’ on, given the propensity of the Vikings to run out of this personnel group.
22 Personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR)
While the Vikings ran 80% of their offense from the first three personnel groups listed, and most NFL teams ran 80% of their plays from the first two personnel groups, there are a couple others the Vikings, and other NFL teams, used to round out their offensive personnel groupings.
The NFL used the 22 personnel group on just 4% of total offensive plays, but the Vikings used it on 12% of theirs – 2nd most in the NFL. They were successful on 47% of plays overall from this personnel group.
The Vikings passed out of this formation only 23% of the time, but when they did, they were successful 60% of the time, averaging a 114.6 passer rating and 8.7 yards per pass attempt. When running (77%), they averaged 4.0 yards per carry and a 43% success rate, however, which isn’t that good.
Presumably opposing defenses are more focused on the run with the Vikings in this formation, given they run 3 out of every 4 times they use it, which may explain the relative success passing compared to running from this personnel group.
13 Personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR)
Triple TE sets aren’t used much in the NFL, and this one is the most popular at 3% of total plays across the league.
But the Vikings used this personnel group the 3rd most frequently in the NFL last year, at 7% of their total offensive snaps – 69 in total.
Their overall success rate was pretty good, however, at 51%. They passed 38% of the time in this group, averaged 9.0 yards per pass attempt, with a 103.1 passer rating, and a 62% success rate. Running 62% of the time, they averaged 4.2 yards per carry and a 44% success rate.
Overall Key Take-Aways
- The Vikings had less than 3 WRs on the field on 75% of their plays last season- twice as often as league average.
- The Vikings used the run to set-up the pass, from the standpoint that they were generally most successful passing from personnel groups that they run from more frequently.
- There was basically no differential in run success rate among the main personnel groups the Vikings used last season.
Looking Ahead to This Season
Now that Gary Kubiak is offensive coordinator, and not Kevin Stefanski, I would expect a couple things to move more closely to Kubiak’s averages as offensive play-caller.
More Under Center, Play-Action
First, I would expect Kirk Cousins to operate under-center more often. Last season he did so only about half the time. I would expect that percentage to eclipse 60% this season. If you look at Matt Schaub’s career under-center percentage (90% of his career snaps were under Kubiak) or Joe Flacco in 2014, both QBs had over 60% of their snaps from under-center. Kirk Cousins’ passer rating from under-center last season was 118.3. His passer rating from shotgun was 96.7. It doesn’t take a genius to put your QB in situations where he does the best, and where play-action – a key element in Kubiak’s offense – is most effective. Cousins was the most effective play-action QB in the NFL last season according to PFF.
More Help on the Left Side
Secondly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kubiak gave Riley Reiff more help by using more formations with TE and/or FB on his side. Kubiak said he could do more as a play-caller to help Reiff a month or so ago, and that would be the most direct way he could do so.
Brian O’Neill has proven he doesn’t need the help as much on his side of the ball, in both run and pass plays. The Vikings had the most success running in O’Neill and Elflein’s gaps last season, and with Elflein now on the right side, they could be effective running the ball to their side even if it’s also the weak side.
More Cousins Outside the Pocket
Third, I would expect Kubiak to incorporate more roll-outs for Kirk Cousins. He’s been running more of those plays in practice. He did well throwing on the run outside the pocket last season, so it makes sense to give him more opportunities to do so again this year. The threat of the designed roll-out also makes it a little less likely for opposing defenses to put their better pass rushers (typically edge rushers) inside against weaker competition at guard.
More Misdirection Plays
Mark Craig has reported that the Vikings have been running more misdirection plays in camp so far, and I expect Gary Kubiak to run more of them than Kevin Stefanski did last season, although Stefanski ran a fair amount of them.
Kubiak’s experience as a play-caller compared to Stefanski may result in a bit more nuance in play-calling to keep opposing defenses off-balance, including use of misdirection plays- a staple of Kubiak’s offensive scheme.
More 3WR Sets?
The Vikings ran easily the league-low in 11 personnel last season, but with perhaps a more capable 3rd WR, Kubiak may want to get Thielen, Johnson, and Jefferson on the field a bit more, even though he likes a lot to use a lot of 2TE sets and 21 Personnel groups.
Bisi Johnson had the highest run-blocking grade on the team last season, and Jefferson has long arms that he learned to use well as a blocker in college, so Kubiak could perhaps use more 3WR sets, but also maintain a similar run-pass balance from this personnel group.
More 22 Personnel Group?
Kubiak has used 22 personnel a lot in the past, just as the Vikings did last season on a relative basis, using it 12% of the time. But the Vikings passed from this formation only 23% of the time, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more run-pass balance if they used it more, and lining up both TEs and FB on the line of scrimmage.
Although the Vikings are running the same scheme as last year, having a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak will undoubtedly result in some changes in play-calling and other wrinkles in the scheme.
Slight changes in personnel and the experience of last year will also likely result in some changes, although probably not dramatically so in terms of play-design.
Will Gary Kubiak get more production from the Vikings offense than Kevin Stefanski did last season?
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