Creative playcalling allows Vikings to show pulse in run game

EAGAN, Minn. – The idea of offensive balance was never lost on Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. After the run game fell stagnant from Weeks 2-4, DeFilippo had to change up his approach to establishing a ground attack against his former team without Dalvin Cook (hamstring) and with an offensive line that has struggled to run block.

“There is no one in this building that wants to run the ball more than I do,” DeFilippo said last week. “Because it takes a lot of pressure off of me to not have to have the perfect protection, to not have to call the perfect route against the coverage that you deem you think you are going to get. The quarterback is in duress at times where if you run the football with efficiency, obviously it is a lot easier on the playcaller, it’s easier on some of the players.”

DeFilippo got to scratch that itch against the Philadelphia Eagles, who came into Week 5 as the league’s No. 1 rushing defense by holding teams to 63.8 yards per game.

His plan for Philly held similarities to the one he had for the Rams: Favoring outside matchups more than having his personnel try to bang their heads against a stout front-four featuring the likes of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett (in for Derek Barnett) and Destiny Vaeao (in for Haloti Ngata).

At the end of the first half, the Vikings had their highest rushing total (58 yards) since Week 2. Philadelphia allowed a season-high 77 yards rushing to a team still trying to find its footing in the ground game.

That rushing total won't cause many heads to turn, but given that Minnesota's running backs gained a league-low 182 yards from scrimmage in the first four weeks, including just 14 rushing yards against Buffalo, the type of performance the run game turned in against Philadelphia is noteworthy, not for its immense production but the strategy behind it.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy to just come in here and run the football,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “In some cases you have to be smart and not play into their hand by running the ball. I do think when we picked our spots, we were pretty efficient and had the runs when we needed them.”

DeFilippo decided that the best way to mitigate the Eagles' pass rush was by getting around it, forcing runs outside designed to attack the perimeter and utilizing quick screens to generate early production.

Stefon Diggs picked up 18 yards off three short passes from Cousins on the Vikings' opening drive, a concept the receiver said “kept them on their toes.” The receiver also accounted for the longest run of the day, taking a 20-yard handoff from Cousins parallel to the Vikings' sideline.

Without Cook, Latavius Murray stepped into a headlining role. His biggest impact was felt when the Vikings aimed to hold off a late Eagles push in the fourth quarter. Once Minnesota got the ball with 9:17 to play up 20-14, Murray accounted for 27 of the drive’s 55 yards, helping burn off nearly seven minutes of game clock in the process. Cousins also went back to the short passes that sparked the offense early on, targeting Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph on gains that set up Dan Bailey’s game-sealing 52-yard field goal.

Cousins once again posted terrific numbers in the face of constant pressure, completing 30 of 37 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown. The high-octane performances Cousins has strung together in his first five games has him ranked second in Vikings history, just shy of the 1,766 passing yards Daunte Culpepper posted in Minnesota first five games in 2004.

DeFilippo’s intentions in Philly were clear: The Vikings are going to continue to rely on Cousins heavily and support him with the run when they can. Minnesota is still towards the bottom in rushing, up one spot to 31st, but showed it can better achieve that balance and take pressure off Cousins.

That philosophy is rooted in DeFilippo’s approach to continually get the ball to his best players. Cousins was 17-of-21 for 207 yards and a touchdown targeting both Diggs and Thielen on Sunday. He has completed 70 percent of his passes to that duo this season for 991 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions, per ESPN Stats and Information.

Thielen registered his fifth straight game of 100 yards receiving, becoming the first player in the Super Bowl era to achieve that feat. The play that made him cross over that threshold was a mark of the Vikings' offensive coordinator playing to the strengths of his offense, a notion that earned him one of two game balls from coach Mike Zimmer (the other went to nose tackle Linval Joseph).

With Minnesota pinned at its own 5-yard line in the third quarter, DeFilippo called a play that allowed Thielen to display his incredible understanding of leverage and how to get open while flipping field position in the process.

“It comes back again to Coach Flip,” Cousins said. “He called a double-move the very first play of the drive backed up. That is an aggressive playcaller. You trust the receiver to win and trust the team to execute the play, and Adam flips the field for us and puts us down in the strike zone. As long as Coach Flip keeps giving us opportunities and the coverage dictates that I go to Adam, he’s going to get the football. I think our offense is at its best when (Diggs) and (Thielen) are catching the ball.”