NFC Championship Game: A Look at the Minnesota Offense

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC Championship Game is being billed as a low-scoring slugfest between two of the NFL’s best defenses.

That’s certainly fair and accurate if you’ve watched either team play even 30 minutes of football this season. It’s backed up by the statistics and justified by the eye test.

But that’s not my focus for this story. Sean Cottrell will dive into the Viking defense later this week, while I start off a three-part breakdown series with a look at their offense.

For starters, let’s go through the regular season numbers to provide an overview of what the Eagles face on Sunday:

  • 11th in total offense (356.9 yards per game)
  • 11th in passing offense (234.6 YPG)
  • 7th in rushing offense (122.3 YPG)
  • 10th in points per game (23.9)
  • 3rd in 3rd down conversion rate (43.5%)
  • 30th in 4th down conversion (14.3% on 1-7 4th down attempts, 7 was fewest attempts in the entire league)
  • 11th best in penalties committed (100 total, 6.25 per game)
  • 6th in first downs (334 total)
  • tied for 22nd in rush yards per attempt (3.9)
  • tied for 7th in rushing touchdowns (15)
  • 12th in passing touchdowns (25)
  • 8 interceptions thrown (tied for 2nd lowest)
  • 6 fumbles lost (tied for 7th lowest)
  • average time of possession 32:29 (2nd, just behind Eagles)

Those numbers include a Week 1 victory where Sam Bradford threw for 300+ yards and three touchdowns, plus four games of smash-mouth Dalvin Cook running, pre-injury. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who might be on the move soon, has done a really nice job keeping this team rolling despite those setbacks.

They’re a balanced offense with a top-ten running game in raw yardage and scoring, though they drop into the bottom half of the league with that 3.9 yards per rush number. Similar to Atlanta, last week’s opponent, they convert third downs at a very high percentage and control the time of possession better than every other team except the Eagles. They throw few interceptions, rarely fumble the ball, and play a steady and disciplined game.

Let’s run those numbers against what Minnesota did last week for comparison, courtesy of the ESPN:

A lot of it checks out.

They controlled the clock by margin of 33:17 to 26:43. They finished +1 in turnover margin and ran the ball 29 times vs. 40 passing attempts, even at a 3.3 yards per rush rate. They went 10-17 on third down to convert at a ridiculous 58.8%. And penalties? Just four for 30 yards while the Saints shot themselves in the foot.

Individually, this is how they finished offensively:

It was Case Keenum’s first time throwing for more than 300 yards since November 12th. His passer rating was down and that completion percentage of 62.5% was also down from a regular season average of 67.6%, which was the second-best in the NFL behind Drew Brees’ all-time record of 72%. And it’s not just dink and dunk stuff, Keenum does throw the ball down the field plenty of times in a typical game.

Latavius Murray’s numbers were slightly down while Jerick McKinnon basically hit his season averages.

In receiving, they did this:

Obviously Stefon Diggs had the ridiculous walk-off touchdown grab that put 61 yards and a score on the stat sheet. If you take away that miracle final play, he had 5 receptions for 75 yards, which any defense would be willing to live with. Adam Thielen snagged six balls for 74 yards but didn’t find the end zone, which also mirrors what he did in the regular season. Thielen had a Julio Jones type of campaign, racking up 1,276 receiving yards but only scoring four touchdowns. Diggs had eight. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had eight. He was a bit limited in Sunday’s win.

Murray doesn’t do much in the receiving department but McKinnon is very good, catching 51 balls on 68 targets this season for 421 yards and two scores.

That’s the basic positional breakdown for you. The Thielen/Diggs combination is not that different from what you saw with Jones and Mohamed Sanu, where one guy is the #1 target and yardage gainer, while the other doesn’t catch as many balls but can burn you on a big play at any time. The tricky thing about Thielen is tracking him across different starting spots, as he had nearly half of his yards coming out of the slot. Rudolph isn’t going to gash you for Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz yardage, but he’s a potent red zone target. The running backs are not Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, but they are a solid 1-2 combination.

And before we get into the playoff film, it’s important to preface the Vikings’ run game with a look at 2016, when the team was dead last in the NFL. They addressed that in the offseason by going out and drafting Cook in the second round and Ohio State center Pat Elflein in the third. They paid Murray $15 million over three years and then went and dedicated $36 million to a pair of new starting tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, the former a free agent and the latter claimed off waivers. Joe Berger, last year’s center, was moved to guard and the Vikings basically rehauled their entire offensive line AND running back situation in one offseason. The line is much more athletic and the running back stable is consistent, if nothing else.

Let’s start there.

On the Vikings’ first score Sunday night, Reiff looks more like Lane Johnson as he pulls into space and throws a brilliant block against a much smaller Marshon Lattimore:

That’s a very Eagle-esque scheme there, not the toss per se, but the receivers blocking down while a lineman pulls.

After that touchdown, Minnesota’s defense held again, and the Vikings hit Diggs for a 3rd and 7 completion that moved the chains and kept their second drive alive. They then went to the air, getting pass interference calls on shots down the field from an RPO and more traditional I-formation play-action look.

But when they got down to the red zone, Pat Shurmur’s play-calling left something to be desired, with one running attempt and a couple of low percentage back-shoulder looks for Rudolph:

That was the third down decision. It really wasn’t a bad throw at all, but that’s such a limited play call. Interference or not, you’ve got the weapons to dial up something better than that.

When you go back and look at the play-by-play in the first half of this game, three things jump out:

  1. Minnesota was 5-8 on third down
  2. their average starting position was the 39 yard line (on the strength of two interceptions)
  3. New Orleans committed four pass interference penalties, two of which came on the same play (so it only went on the score sheet as one)

I’d actually chalk up the Vikings’ second touchdown drive to poor defense, rather than anything Minnesota did.

On this 3rd and 8, New Orleans only rushes three, can’t get to Keenum, and he has forever to pick out a receiver for the first down:

That’s not happening against the Eagles.

In the second half, the Saints did better on third down and started to get some pressure on Keenum, sacking him to end a drive, scoring on the ensuing drive, then following up with another good pass rush that forced a bad throw and an a huge interception:

Minnesota opened the second half with 12 plays on two drives that went for 35 yards and zero points and chewed up 7:09 on the clock. Their starting positions were not as beneficial as they were in the first half and that made a big difference.

Credit to Keenum for getting the job done on the final two drives of the game, but the Diggs touchdown was a brutal defensive breakdown and the Thielen catch leading to the Kai Forbath 53-yard field goal was a back-foot prayer that was 95% receiver and 5% quarterback.

This is not me being a homer. I promise. Others have pointed out how the game completely swung based on the Saints pulling their heads out of their rear ends in the second half, getting to the quarterback and cutting down on the terrible penalties.

Consider this:

That bodes very well for Sunday night. Another thing to consider isn’t just how Keenum does under pressure, but the disparity in his performance when he isn’t pressured:

That’s a huge difference there. He was 116.5 in passer rating when kept clean, which was the best number of the weekend.

And I found this to be interesting as well, the contested catch metric, which really explains some of the big plays that the Vikings were able to make in the 4th quarter, and also throughout the regular season:

For a quick exercise, let me propose four somewhat serious / somewhat rhetorical questions about the Viking offense, compared to what we saw last weekend:

  1. Is Case Keenum better than Matt Ryan?
  2. Is the combination of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs better than Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu?
  3. Is the 1-2 punch of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray better than Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman?
  4. Is Pat Shurmur a better offensive coordinator than Steve Sarkisian?

I think #2 and #3 are a wash. I don’t think the Diggs/Thielen combo is any more potent than what the Eagles faced last week. I really don’t. And I also don’t think McKinnon/Murray is any tougher than Freeman/Coleman.

Pat Shurmur is definitely the better coordinator than Sark, but some of his red zone decisions do give you that Andy Reid coaching tree vibe. I think Shurmur did get a bit overlooked during his time working with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, simply because Chip was this domineering and offensive-minded coach. If anything, Shurmur has done a nice job helping the likes of Keenum, Nick Foles, and Sam Bradford improve during their time working with him.

And I’d certainly be inclined to say that Ryan is more dangerous than Keenum, but Matty Ice had a down year by his standards (probably due to Sarkisian more than anything) and Keenum really took huge steps forward this year. It’s wrong to look at him as a career backup when he really played like a legitimate starting NFL quarterback in 2018. Most of his numbers were top 10 or top 12 in the important categories.

The takeaway for me is that while Minnesota’s offense should definitely be respected, I don’t think it presents anything the Eagles can’t handle. Jim Schwartz knows Shurmur, and his unit limited Atlanta to 10 points, strictly off turnovers. Carolina was held to 23 points in their own building with something like a +10 penalty margin. The Chargers, with the fourth most yards in the regular season, were taken care of on the road. Kansas City ranks 5th in total offense and the Birds were really competitive at Arrowhead, too.

The Vikings offense is a solid unit that probably does get overshadowed by an elite defense, but this is not the 2001 Rams coming to Lincoln Financial Field. If the Eagles pressure Case Keenum, play their typically stout run defense, and limit the big play ability of Diggs and Thielen, then they should be good to go. The blueprint is no different than what they put together in the divisional round.

Whether or not Nick Foles can move the ball down the field is another issue, but Sean will go through that later this week.

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27 Comments

  • Fart January 16, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    West

    • Kyle’s noticeably thinning hair and receding hairline January 16, 2018 at 4:24 pm

      Kinker: help settle a bet a friend and I have. I set O/U on number of cats in your home at 1.5. Friend took the under. Answer tells me all I need to know about you. Who wins?

      I’m convinced you and Adair are one in same

      • Jimmy Adair January 16, 2018 at 5:36 pm

        I have 12 cats and a mustard stained lazy boy.
        and my trailer tilts to the left and i still can’t get no hipster pussy.

        • Randy January 16, 2018 at 7:26 pm

          Didn’t Kyle’s chick jack you off once?

    • Jim Gardner’s 12 incher January 16, 2018 at 7:49 pm

      Taste it.

    • Ron heller #73 January 16, 2018 at 10:26 pm

      Where the fuck has joe Decamera been ??? The hammer on a drug bender???

  • I Punched A Cop H0rse At The Falcons Game January 16, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    Eagles 13
    Viqueens 10

  • 2 in the kinker, 1 in the stinker January 16, 2018 at 3:34 pm

    Kyle’s Lane Johnson t-shirt is technically stealing from a charity, it’s copyright infringement and he forces his wife to pack the boxes while he props his feet on her back while day drinking and scrolling Twitter.

    • Jimmy Adair January 16, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      Kyle,
      Kinker,

      Can you confirm this?
      I can’t beleive Kyle would prop his feet up on his wifes back.
      He’s just trying to make a buck for his kids college fund.
      By the time he grows up that shit is going to cost well over 100K/yr
      unless Trump saves us……..hHAHAHAHAHAHA

      JImmy A

  • elegant elliot offen January 16, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    RIGHT???

    • Robin January 16, 2018 at 5:35 pm

      Who are you calling bulldog?

  • 700 level for life January 16, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Come sunday I dare you Vikings fans to travel here and say your childish skol crap around here, trust me you won’t last. I’ll fuck them up! You might have to pay for the game ticket but the ass kick will be free. Besides that im still shocked why the h0rse kid didn’t get shot which I think he should have gotten shot oh well, ExAxGxLxExS EAGLES

    Amirite ang

  • Mel January 16, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    Casey Casum will armpunt all day. Too much of us to handle.

    • That Fucking Dog Snuggles January 16, 2018 at 5:02 pm

      I hate Casey Casum

      • Embiid shovin eagles fans January 16, 2018 at 5:09 pm

        Kyle said he slings the pigskin like he’s doing shotput, lol he ain’t lying. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
        I’d say in this matchup, the qb’s are the same, give or take a bit. That means it’s the other facets off the game that will be the difference maker

  • hew g phag January 16, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    Great, anything more on Ben Simmons?

  • dom torreto January 16, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    This game will not be close. The Vikings are very over rated. They played in by far the worst division this year. Keenum will be a disaster Sunday night. The Linc will be the most hostile place outside of the isis caliphate.

    Eagles 31
    Vikings 13

  • Phil Keidel looks like he shouldn’t be left unsupervised around children January 16, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    Amirite?

    64 yo guy hanging around with Kyle and other guys half his age “talking sports”. That’s weird Phil. Find some friends your own age.

    • Randy January 16, 2018 at 7:28 pm

      Wow, what a comment. Well done.

  • Kyle prefers lattes to black coffee January 16, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    In all seriousness, if you’re going to post a photo of yourself in gym shorts…. you better be hung, or chub up. Damn… kyle is hung like a field mouse.

    • field mice everywhere January 16, 2018 at 7:59 pm

      we find that comparison offensive…take it back

  • Jeff foxworthy January 16, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    If you can cover your whole C0CK n balls with one hand… you might be a red neck.

  • My family just did an intervention on me.... January 16, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    I refused treatment. Said I’d go after the super bowl. I’m outdoors now. Can anybody put me up until Feb 4? God bless

    • Embiid shovin eagles fans January 17, 2018 at 12:22 am

      Damn, the opioid epidemic is relentless

      • Everyone January 17, 2018 at 1:33 am

        You’re hard on for sports radio hosts is relentless. Get a life bro.

        • Clue January 17, 2018 at 6:18 am

          Go to Pat Eagan’s Facebook page…. you see his old profile pic???? Same as this guy with the midget from GOT. Busted.

  • 4 for 4 and all in on the Meat Locker January 17, 2018 at 8:02 am

    Cuz is doing the show in a dog mask. I can’t understand how he’s not beating Pop Pop in the ratings!!!

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