Schofield Xs and Os breakdown: Minnesota Vikings’ Cousins-DeFilippo form successful pairing
The Chicago Bears square off with divisional rivals on Sunday night when they host the Minnesota Vikings. Similar to the growing relationship between Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Nagy, the Vikings have a quarterback/coach relationship worth following in recently acquired QB Kirk Cousins and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Here are some of the ways the new OC has helped his quarterback this season, as well as an area of Cousins’ game worth watching Sunday night.
One of the things that DeFilippo has done with Cousins is something that helped the quarterback during his time in the nation’s capital. Under Jay Gruden, Cousins was perhaps at his best when he was given half-field concepts to work with, whether mirrored passing designs or two different half-field concepts, one to each side of the formation. As we have talked about this year with Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Nagy, these designs are a great way to give your quarterback some defined reads while still stretching the defense to both sides of the field.
One concept the Vikings have used this year, whether on mirrored designs or as part of two different half-field reads, is the Flat-7 Smash concept. This concept, consisting of a corner route and a route to the flat, gives the quarterback a high-low structure to read to one side of the field or the other, and the general rule of thumb is to “throw the corner.” If the cornerback drops under the corner route, you throw to the flat. If the cornerback squats on the flat route, throw the corner route over his head.
Here is that look in practice. On this play against the New Orleans Saints back in Week 8, the Vikings face a first-and-10. They line up with Cousins (#8) under center and with “21” offensive personnel on the field. The running backs are in an offset I-formation with fullback C.J. Ham (#30) shaded to the right side of the formation. Wide receiver Adam Thielen (#19) is split to the right as well. Ham and Thielen run the Flat-7 concept with the WR running the corner, and the FB releasing to the flat:
Backside the Vikings run a Shallow Cross concept, with the tight end and the backside receiver. But on this play Cousins works the Flat-7 combination, and with the Saints in a Cover 1 scheme here, Cousins looks to Thielen on the corner route:
With the cornerback in man coverage on this play, with no safety help over the top, he has to respect Thielen’s vertical release. That gives the WR the ability to break to the outside and get separation, and Cousins hits him in stride for a decent gain.
This play against the Arizona Cardinals from Week 6 is another look at a Flat-7 Smash concept, again with a wide receiver and a running back working the route combination:
On the backside of this design the Vikings have a variation of the spot concept. But here Cousins again works from the corner to the flat route. On this play Arizona runs a Cover 2 coverage, so the cornerback stays down near the line of scrimmage to cover the running back in the flat. That opens up the “Turkey Hole” for Stefon Diggs (#14) on the corner route:
Some other half-field concepts the Vikings have used in 2018 start with two core components similar to the Flat-7: A vertical release and a route to the flat. But these two routes are a bit different. First is curl/flat, a design that Minnesota and other teams (such as the Chicago Bears) often use as part of a mirrored route concept:
Back in Week 9 the Vikings faced a fourth-and-2 early in the game, and came out for the play with Cousins in the shotgun and with a 2x2 formation, using a slot alignment to each side of the field. As you can see, they run the mirrored curl/flat formation to each side of the field. Often with this play, such as how the Bears run it under Matt Nagy, you see a “sit” route in the middle of the field to give the quarterback a checkdown option, and that route also serves as a horizontal stretch to hold underneath defenders, helping to perhaps free up the routes in the flat. Here, however, DeFilippo has the running back run a swing route to the left. Cousins likely picks his “best look” side here, which is often the read on mirrored passing designs, and throws to the flat route from the right slot:
This is likely the “best look” read for the quarterback because both safeties shade to the left side of the offensive formation, while on the right side, the offense has two pure one-on-ones to choose from. Cousins gives a quick peek at the deep route, and comes to the flat to convert the first down.
The Ohio concept is a similar design to this play, only here you get a pure vertical route on the outside, and a flat route from the inside receiver. This is often called “go/flat” or “91” in Air Coryell offensive systems. On this play against the New York Jets in Week 7, the Vikings used a mirrored Ohio concept for a big play early in the contest:
The Vikings catch the Jets on a blitz here, and Cousins hits Thielen on the go route to the right side of the field for a touchdown. What is great about this play in particular is that since both flat routes start from a tight or wing alignment, those receivers can chip on the edges before releasing to the flat. That gives Cousins an extra layer of protection, and the Vikings’ offense takes advantage.
Stick-Nod/Out-and-Up in the Red Zone
When Minnesota’s offense gets down into the red zone, particularly near the goal-line, a route design they turn to is the “stick-nod.” The Stick concept is a component of the Vikings’ offense, and they will run that play at all areas of the field and often run it out of empty formations, using RB Dalvin Cook as a receiver in the three-man combination. But when they get near the goal line, they will turn to the stick-nod, which is a variation of the route where the receiver shows the quick out, or “stick,” before turning vertically looking for a quick throw from Cousins.
Back in Week 1, the Vikings used this for a touchdown to TE Kyle Rudolph (#82):
Rudolph is in the slot with Diggs on the outside of him, and is matched up against strong safety Jaquiski Tartt (#29). Rudolph’s route is perfect, as the quick turn to the outside gets the safety to bite, and he breaks vertically to get the needed separation:
Of course the throw from Cousins could not be better, as we see on the end zone angle:
This touchdown pass from Cousins to Thielen back in Week 9 against the Lions is a very similar concept. Thielen is inside of Rudolph in a tight slot, and runs a quick out-and-up, very much like the stick-nod design:
This time, the receiver gets inside of the cornerback to get open. Cousins drops in a perfect throw, and the Vikings are in the end zone.
When the Minnesota offense gets down near the goal-line, the Bears’ defense will need to be ready for these quick little routes that Cousins throws very well.
Cousins vs. Pressure
If there is a book on Cousins, it is this: Pressure can make his performance dip. This fantastic piece from Matthew Coller of ESPN1500 back in October shows just how the numbers dip when Cousins is pressured, and how it tracks over his career. For example, back in 2017, Cousins’ quarterback rating overall was 106.5. But when pressured? That dropped to 66.3. Now, many quarterbacks struggle when they are pressured, whether veterans or rookies, so this is not unlocking a secret code. But the numbers — and the film — bear this out.
For example, look at this interception Cousins threw back in Week 9 against the Lions:
Minnesota shows a cursory run look here, with zone blocking up front, simulating a wide zone play to the left side. But with three receivers to the right the Vikings are setting up a three-level flood concept. However, the defensive end is left unblocked by design, and he puts pressure on Cousins. Rather than taking the easy — and uncovered — throw to the flat, Cousins tries to float a pass to Thielen on a deep out route, and it is intercepted.
Looking at the end zone angle, you can see how Cousins attempts this throw, and how it costs him:
Despite mistakes like this, and the numbers, Cousins has actually made some impressive throws this year in the face of the blitz. Take, for example, this play against the Saints back in Week 8. The Vikings face a first-and-10 and the Arizona defense brings pressure. But Cousins stands in the pocket in the face of the blitz and delivers a throw with perfect timing and placement on an out route to move the chains:
The late pressure off the edge does not impact the quarterback or his decision, and Cousins throws a strike. Another example is this Week 6 play against the Cardinals, which also comes on a first-and-10 situation:
On both of these plays, Cousins is confident in the pocket in the face of the blitz, and delivers on perfect throws on out routes to move the chains. Minnesota fans want to see more of this Cousins in the face of pressure, and not the passer we saw on the first example.
The Bears should be ready for these half-field concepts on Sunday night, as well as these quick routes near the goal-line. The pressure situation is one to watch. If Chicago can get consistent pressure on Cousins — and he looks more like the QB on the first example than the second two plays — Chicago will be in good position for the victory.