Sam Bradford, Norv Turner and Embracing Options
Nobody ran more often on first down than the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, the Vikings ran on 65 percent of first downs last year. The then St. Louis Rams were second running on 61 percent of their first downs while no other team in the league eclipsed 55 percent.
The Vikings led the league in play action usage at 27 percent while only using shotgun or pistol formations on 45 percent of their snaps, ranking 29th in the league. They ranked top 10 in two tight end formations, in the bottom five for empty sets and 27th in the league in 3+ receiver sets. They used a true fullback on over 20 percent of their snaps.
In short, the Vikings had a clear philosophy that they stuck to no matter what.
Norv Turner ran this rigid, run-oriented scheme to prioritize Adrian Peterson. For as long as he has been in the NFL Peterson has thrived when his quarterback has lined up under center and the offense has run from tight formations to diversify how he could run the ball. In 2015, he rewarded Turner’s approach with 4.5 yards per carry on 327 rushing attempts. His 1,485 yards led the league in rushing.
Yet despite Peterson’s numbers, the Vikings running game ranked only eighth in rushing DVOA.
Eighth in rushing DVOA (rushing efficiency for those unfamiliar) is an achievement in a vacuum. It’s not an achievement considering how much the Vikings sacrificed to prioritze their running game. Peterson can’t run from shotgun, he can’t protect the passer and he can’t run routes or line up in different spots as a receiver. To set him up for success, the offense has to keep him out of those situations. That meant using deep drops from under center, throwing off of play action all the time and relying more on vertical routes than short or intermediate routes.
The Vikings had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last year. The unit couldn’t pass protect effectively and Teddy Bridgewater taking deeper drops meant that they were stressed more in their assignments.
Stressing those linemen like that meant that Bridgewater was constantly confronted by pressure from more than one defender before his slow-developing downfield routes could be thrown to. Sacks, scrambles and throwaways became more common than first downs and touchdowns in the Vikings passing game. Bridgewater finished the season with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions while being sacked 44 times without more than 500 pass attempts.
The second-year starter performed incredibly just so the passing game could rank 19th in DVOA.
Bridgewater and Peterson never fit with each other. Even if the Vikings had better pass protection and receivers who could win on vertical routes, Bridgewater was a bad vertical passer. His ability to hit deep crossing routes made him a statistically respectable deep thrower, but too often he couldn’t locate receivers running parrallel to the sideline further than 20 yards downfield.
Prioritizing Peterson over a second-year quarterback with limited weapons might have made sense five or six years ago. At that time Peterson was godly in his ability to run the ball and the league wasn’t as pass-heavy as it is now.
However Peterson isn’t a great running back anymore. He’s old and great running backs now have to be versatile enough to offer value in the passing game. Not to mention he had seven fumbles in 2015. Handicapping your passing game to set him up for success was never going to lead to an efficient or explosive offense. It led to a predictable and limited offense.
Now that Peterson is injured and the Vikings were forced to swap out Teddy Bridgewater for Sam Bradford, Norv Turner has adjusted.
It helps that Peterson averaged 1.6 yards per attempt in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans when the Titans lined up on every snap with the expectation that he was getting the ball. He averaged 1.6 yards per attempt in Week 2 also but the offense had shifted once Bradford replaced Shaun Hill.
Bradford and Bridgewater are different types of quarterbacks but they play at around the same level. Bradford is a better deep passer with a more talented arm, whereas Bridgewater is more likely to read through a sideline-to-sideline progression while mitigating pressure in the pocket with his precise footwork. Both are very good quarterbacks but Bradford has been the priority when Bridgewater wasn’t.
Head coaches are curious creatures. Most of them will rarely adjust their offense to work to their starting quarterback’s strengths but as soon as their backups are forced to play they try to do everything possible to alleviate the pressure on the position. The quarterback should be the priority on every offense in the NFL now. That may not have always been the case, but the rules for receivers and defensive backs (and for defenders hitting quarterbacks) are such that you can’t afford to prioritize any other position.
Against the New York Giants in Week 4, Bradford had 39 called passing plays. On 29 of those he lined up in the shotgun. On one more he lined up in the pistol (shotgun depth with a running back behind him). For the eight remaining plays, he lined up under center. Only twice did he dropback from under center without executing a play fake of some kind. This was a completely different offense to the one that Bridgewater had run in 2015.
The Vikings first drive in the game opened with the Vikings backed up against their own endzone. That undoubtedly impacted the team’s play calling. A muffed punt meant that the second drive began immediately after.
That was when Norv began emphasizing elements that his offense had previously ignored.
In the first play after the Vikings recovered the muffed punt, Turner has Bradford execute an RPO. Run-Pass Option plays can only be executed from shotgun. The quarterback has to be able to see the defense clearly before the snap and from the point he catches the ball through his handoff. By keeping his eyes on the coverage instead of turning his back he gives himself the option of pulling the ball away from the running back and throwing it outside to a receiver.
He can also pull the ball to run on his own but this specific play is an RPO.
The key to Bradford’s decision here comes before the snap. He has three receivers spread wide to the right, the wider side of the formation. The Giants don’t have three cornerbacks to that side because they need to respect the run and want to keep two safeties deep. Before the ball is snapped. Bradford can see an obvious 3-on-2 advantage because his inside slot receiver is covered by a deep safety.
The Giants ultimately blitz the cornerback from that side, something that plays into the offense’s favor against this play, but that’s largely irrelevant to what Bradford is doing. Even if the cornerback hadn’t blitzed the offense would still have been able to account for him with a blocking receiver.
Cordarrelle Patterson gains 21 yards on this play because Bradford had the option to put the ball in his hands in a favorable situation.
When you run a hard play action from under center you are hoping to distort the coverage downfield. You are hoping a defender will be drawn out of position or let his eyes linger too long in the backfield to carry out his assignment. Quarterbacks can’t elevate their teammates in these situations because the result of the play is determined more by how the defense reacts to the play design. When throwing from shotgun without play action and receivers spread across the field, it’s less about what the defense does and more about what the quarterback does.
In these situations the quarterback has options and it’s his responsibility to find the right option to best attack the defense. Because he never turns his back to the coverage he can read what develops in front of him at an earlier point and release the ball sooner than when he has to carry out a play fake. This can be the difference of a second or less but that is huge when it comes to negating the pass rush.
Both of the above gifs show Bradford covering for his left tackle, T.J. Clemmings, getting beaten by Olivier Vernon. The extra time Bradford has with his eyes downfield allow him to make quicker decisions. He can release the ball just before Vernon arrives in the first gif. He can decide to leave the pocket at an earlier point in the second gif.
Those plays come from the second half of the game and show off the indirect value in not having Peterson on the field. If we return to the first drive, we can see the direct value.
Peterson is a bigger, more powerful runner than Jerrick McKinnon. As between-the-tackle battering rams, there is no contest between the two. McKinnon is a more dynamic athlete than Peterson though. His fluidity and balance allows him to turn quicker while also helping him to adjust to catch the ball while moving. McKinnon isn’t much of a pass blocker but when you can isolate him against a linebacker in space he immediately becomes a mismatch receiver in a way that Peterson simply can’t.
In the above play, McKinnon only gains three yards. But a couple of factors must be considered.
First, no other receiver downfield was open so at the very least, McKinnon offered Bradford a positive gain that kept the offense close enough to on track for down-and-distance. Second, Bradford needed an outlet to get rid of the ball as his right tackle was being pushed into his face with his left tackle closing the pocket in front of him. Third, the linebacker on this play does an exceptional job of staying with McKinnon. He made a play that will be rarely made against the twitchy running back.
Angle routes are really difficult to defend. Especially when they come with options. The more McKinnon runs them the crisper they should become. Darren Sproles will likely set the standard forever but McKinnon’s explosiveness will allow him to contribute in similar ways.
McKinnon ran for two yards from a shotgun alignment on the following play to set up Third-and-5.
On that third down the Vikings spread the field with four receivers, one being Kyle Rudolph in the position of a receiver, while the Giants show Cover-2 Man. Bradford can see the coverage and he motions Rudolph into the slot to give him an option if they drop into zones. If they do indeed play Cover-2, Bradford knows where he is throwing the ball before it is even snapped to him. Before the play begins, the Giants’ only linebacker on the field is lined up over the right B-Gap. McKinnon is to Bradford’s left.
In man coverage, it’s a simple sprint between McKinnon and a linebacker. The running back will always have the advantage in that matchup, but especially so when he has a built-in head start.
Bradford holds the ball longer than he needs to in order to make sure the outside coverage clears. That costs McKinnon a chance to turn upfield before the linebacker catches up to him but it assures Bradford that he has made a first down throw. He still made that throw early enough that the pass protection was essentially irrelevant. So long as the linemen avoided a complete disaster where they didn’t touch someone, Bradford was going to be able to get rid of the ball.
Simply because he had options.
You don’t need a great receiving back to make this kind of play. You just need a comfortable receiving back with a quarterback who understands his options and an offensive coordinator who will give him those options. The exact same situation presented itself during the fourth quarter and Bradford made the exact same play to Matt Asiata.
This time he was quicker to release the ball so Asiata could continue upfield without stopping his momentum.
Offenses are supposed to look like this in the NFL now. No matter how good of a runner you have in the backfield, there’s only so much you can do if you prioritize him over the passing game. You can still rely on passing games that push the ball downfield, but you need a great quarterback (Cam Newton), a great overall unit (the Arizona Cardinals) or a combination of the two (the Pittsburgh Steelers).
The Vikings have a great defense. They only need their offense to be good enough for them to contend this season. Norv Turner must continue to allow that to happen.