Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur departed for the Big Apple, and quarterback Case Keenum took off for Denver. The two architects for the Minnesota Vikings’ 11th-ranked offense in 2017 are no longer with the team, so what should 49ers’ fans expect in the season opener on Sunday?
The man that was always tied to 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan — quarterback Kirk Cousins, will be standing on the opposite sideline. He’ll be making his debut in Minnesota, after signing a lucrative, three-year, $84M deal. The man relaying the play calls into Cousins’ headset will be ex-Eagles’ quarterbacks coach, John DeFilippo.
The dynamic receiving tandem of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs will look to build on last season, after racking up 2,125 yards on 155 catches combined. Running back Dalvin Cook will try to return from a season-ending injury, after only participating in four contests in his rookie campaign.
While the Vikings’ defense will be the unit that provides less surprises, the offense has a chance to be more explosive than last season. Taking a look at Minnesota’s offense from the preseason, here are the things that the 49ers’ fans should be most aware of.
Vikings’ newly-constructed aerial attack
Cousins is one of two quarterbacks to have thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in each of the last three seasons — the other being Chargers’ Phillip Rivers. After rotating six quarterbacks in the Mike Zimmer era, the Vikings are finally settling with the ex-Washington signal caller.
With Diggs on the outside and Thielen on the inside, Cousins should be able to keep the streak going. In the preseason opener at Denver, the seven-year veteran led the Vikings on a touchdown drive, completing all of his four passes.
On his best throw of the night, Cousins connected with Diggs on a 28-yard throw to set up a touchdown. Off of play action, Cousins’ throw to the Vikings’ newly-extended wideout was slightly long, but Diggs laid out and made the catch.
While it was a completion, I am not surprised that Cousins’ deep ball wasn’t on target, as he averaged 8.5 yards per attempt last season — which ranked 28th in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, Cousins’ passer rating jumped from 87.4 to 118.7 when Washington’s offense used play-action passes. DeFilippo did his homework, as he dialed up a play-action pass helping set up the Vikings’ offense on the Denver three-yard line.
In his next appearance, Cousins’ first drive wasn’t as magical, as he had two incompletions — one well defended, the other just a poor throw. With the pocket collapsing, the Vikings’ signal caller couldn’t step into this throw as it was just outside of the outstretched arms of tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings are lined up in trips right — a formation that puts three receivers in a triangular formation to the right of the quarterback. From what I have seen, it’s something DeFilippo likes to utilize. If the 49ers’ defensive line is able to get some early pressure on Cousins, it can definitely rattle him into some inaccurate throws.
Once again, DeFilippo uses the play-action pass for Cousins, who’s pressured by the Jaguars’ defensive line, causing an inaccurate throw to Thielen, who was running away from the Jacksonville secondary.
Robert Saleh’s defense should look to force Cousins into obvious passing downs, so they can take away the play action from the Vikings’ offense. Per Pro Football Focus, when Cousins was under duress from the opposing defense, his passer rating fell to 66.3 over his career — a mark well below average.
In his dress rehearsal against the Seahawks, Cousins bounced back, completing 17 of 28 attempts, but was unable to find a receiver in the end zone. Early in this game, it was obvious that the Vikings’ OC was trying to set the quarterback up for success, with the short passing game.
On the opening play, Cousins has five receivers spread across the formation and all of their routes go eight yards or less. The Vikings’ quarterback drops back quickly and hits Diggs for an eight-yard gain. The 49ers’ defense should expect lots of quick hitters from the Vikings, not deep, long-developing routes to help set up Cousins.
Cousins’ best throw — probably of the preseason — came on a seven-step drop, completing a pass to Diggs in a spot where only he could make the grab. The Vikings will need more of this consistently from Cousins in order to help stretch the defense.
It was a beautiful back-shoulder throw from the Vikings’ quarterback, with Seahawks’ corner Shaquill Griffin draped over Diggs.
Dalvin Cook’s comeback from injury
The biggest question mark for the Vikings’ offense will be the health and recovery of their starting running back — Dalvin Cook. After playing in four games, racking up 354 yards on just 74 attempts (4.8 Y/A), Cook suffered a torn ACL that kept him out the rest of the season.
Cook made his 2018 preseason debut against the Seahawks, rushing twice for only a gain of one yard. The runs came early in the first quarter and Cook was stopped immediately by the Seahawks’ defensive line. The former Florida State tailback didn’t return to the field after, as Zimmer has prioritized health over repetitions during the preseason.
In Cook’s first play since last October, the Vikings’ offensive line misses blocks, allowing the Seahawks’ defensive line to penetrate and hit Cook at the point of attack.
In the preseason, the Vikings’ rushing offense hasn’t been great, only averaging 3.6 yards per carry — for comparison, their defense gave up 4.1 yards per carry. It was partly due to Cook’s unavailability, but mostly due to changes along the offensive line.
Cook’s early snaps against the 49ers will need to be monitored, in order to see if he can build some rhythm and help take pressure off of Cousins and the passing attack.
Struggles along the Vikings’ offensive line
With changes to the offensive coordinator and coordinator, the offensive line wasn’t left off the hook either. Since last season, right guard Joe Berger has retired, left guard Nick Easton (ex-49er!) is out with a season-ending injury and center Pat Elflein is out through Week 1. The Vikings will start center Danny Isidora — making his second start ever.
As a result, linemen DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Arik Armstead should take full advantage, wreaking havoc on the Vikings’ replacement offensive line.
While this play was called back for a penalty, the Vikings’ left side of the offensive line mixed up their protection, blocking the same Seahawks’ player. That allowed linebacker Bobby Wagner to shoot up the middle, untouched, laying a huge hit on Cousins.
Against the Jaguars, the Vikings’ offensive line completely missed Jaguars’ DE Yannick Ngakoue, allowing him to sack Cousins before the play even begins. The lack of chemistry along the Vikings’ front line is causing miscommunication issues such as this play. With the 49ers catching Minnesota early in the season, they should try and take full advantage of all of the Vikings’ mistakes.
Overall, the Vikings’ offense contains a lot of talented pieces, but they’ve only put it together in a few of their preseason drives. Cousins has been vulnerable in the passing game, especially on third down and obvious passing situations. The Vikings’ run game and offensive line has question marks, allowing holes for the 49ers’ defense to exploit.
Against an improving 49ers’ defense, will the Vikings be able to exploit and score enough to overcome the potent offense of Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo?