To understand why Adam Thielen leads the NFL in red-zone receiving touchdowns since the start of 2019 — and why the Vikings receiver shrugs at his characterization as a scoring machine — you first have to understand his process.
The nine-year veteran still prizes practice snaps, as the only true method of refining releases and cuts until they feel effortless to him and their differences are imperceptible to cornerbacks. He takes few cues from film study on which routes work against certain corners, knowing from his time with seven different NFL offensive coordinators that every coach teaches receivers to run the same routes slightly differently. Besides, he hates watching film of himself, worried the picture he sees on the screen will disrupt the impression in his mind's eye.
"There's nothing you can do outside of practice to get better at that stuff," he said. "You can watch all the film you want, you can talk about it all you want, but you're not getting better unless you're on the field. You get the play Wednesday, talk about the game plan and you're like, 'OK, this is how I'm going to run it.' Now I go out on the practice field and I run it, and I might say, 'OK, I didn't really like that — I'd rather do it this way.' And then you have that visual going into the game."
That process doesn't change for routes the Vikings run near the goal line, so Thielen doesn't see the fuss about all his short TDs (though he concedes the details might be even more important in the red zone, when throwing lanes are tighter and plays develop faster).
The most important thing, he says, is that "the quarterback trusts you're going to be in this spot at this time. That's how you get your opportunities out there."
In recent years, no one has cashed in on more of them than Thielen.
Since the beginning of 2019, Thielen and the Packers' Davante Adams are tied for the most receiving touchdowns in the league. Both have 24 scores in that time, and both have done it by connecting with their quarterbacks in the red zone: Thielen has 19 touchdowns inside opponents' 20-yard lines, and Adams has 18.
"I keep chuckling at the touchdowns," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "After the Cincinnati game, I said, 'You're starting to become like Cris Carter. Just catching touchdowns over over and over.' I think it really has more to do with our coaches, plans they put together have probably more to do with coverages and he becomes the option. He becomes the person that I go to. I kind of walk off the field and say, 'I was just going where my reads took me.' And for whatever reason, it's been Adam more often than not over the past year and a half.''
This season, six of Cousins' eight TD passes have come in the red zone; Thielen has three of them, Justin Jefferson two and Tyler Conklin one. In the Vikings' first victory of the season last week, they erased a 17-7 deficit on red-zone scores from Cousins to Thielen and Jefferson (who scored on a 3-yard whip route) in the second quarter.
"He's a beast," Jefferson said of Thielen. "My man, he's a killer. He just knows how to get in the end zone, and I love to see it. I love watching the guy, I love seeing his little 'Griddies' in the end zone. They're hilarious.I just love being a part of it, just learning from the things that he's teaching me, and I'm trying to be that touchdown threat, too."
It would be shortsighted to cast Thielen only as a red-zone threat; while 12 of his 43 career receiving touchdowns are from 3 yards or fewer, nine are from 30 yards or more. But he's clicked in the red zone especially with Cousins; of their 33 touchdown connections, 25 have been inside the opponents' 20.
Thielen's releases allow him to beat the man coverage he sees so often near the goal line. On play-action passes, offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said, Thielen blocks so hard — or "gets run over slowly," as the receiver joked — that defensive backs might be a step slower to recognize him as the primary receiving target.
"I think it just goes back to Adam being an all-around, well-rounded football player," Kubiak said. "He's great at a lot of different things, and when you get down to the red zone, you're looking for your most detail-oriented guy, and he's one of those guys when the windows get smaller, so you need to know exactly where he's going to be, and you know where Adam's going to be."
Thielen grew up watching Carter with the Vikings, and he brushed off Cousins' comparison on Friday by saying the quarterback is "just trying to make me feel good."
He is still nowhere close to eclipsing Carter's franchise record of 71 red-zone receiving touchdowns, but Thielen is climbing the list quickly. He is fourth in franchise history with 30 red-zone receiving scores, within range of Randy Moss (38) and Kyle Rudolph (37).
If he keeps cashing in, it will be because of a process that Thielen regards as gold.
"You're always trying to do the little things better to get better, right?" he said. "High school, you just kind of run, the ball's thrown, you get open or you go catch it. In college, you learn more of your break points, speed cuts, 45-degree angle cuts, things like that. It's always trying to get better at that — putting speed on people and then being able to stop on a dime. It's that progression as a receiver: you're always trying to do something a little bit better."