Kevin Stefanski had his best day as Vikings offensive coordinator Sunday in game plan, play-calling and sheer optics. Of course, he won’t agree with that statement or accept an ounce of praise because you could fit Stefanski’s ego inside a matchbox.
“I put not 99 percent but 100 percent of the credit to the players,” he said Monday after reviewing video of the Vikings’ 38-20 victory over Philadelphia.
His pie chart is a little skewed. Players obviously deserve credit for feasting on an Eagles defense that had vulnerable areas, but Stefanski’s plan was both creative and aggressive, highlighted by new wrinkles that gave the offense a different look.
“We’ve got a special play caller,” running back Dalvin Cook said after the game.
Stefanski called pass plays on 17 of 33 first downs, a diversion from normal tactics. The Vikings entered the game ranked fourth in the NFL in first-down run percentage.
Stefanski confused the Eagles after a successful third-down conversion on the opening drive by going quick tempo on the next play, which aided a 14-yard run by Cook.
The game plan included a heavy mix of play-action passes and play designs that enabled Kirk Cousins to move outside the pocket, which plays to his strength. Cousins was masterful in keeping the defense off-balance with a blend of quick passes and deep shots.
Stefanski’s menu also included a reverse to Stefon Diggs, a shovel pass to tight end Irv Smith Jr. and a second reverse that gave Diggs an option to pass. They have practiced that trick play since OTAs.
“Some of those are on your call sheet for five weeks at a time and you just call them to get them off the call sheet,” Stefanski said, smiling. “We didn’t go into it saying we have to play razzle-dazzle. We go into every game saying, ‘How can we be explosive?’ If it’s running it or throwing it, we don’t care.”
That fundamental premise is why this particular performance hit the bull’s-eye. Stefanski attacked the Philadelphia defense where it was vulnerable, rather than stubbornly trying to satisfy a run-first identity.
Did the Vikings offense benefit from playing a bad pass defense? Yes, and that’s precisely the point.
The Eagles entered Sunday with the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Their secondary was a mess because of injuries. So the Vikings picked on their defensive backs. It’s not complicated.
Adam Thielen’s comments about the offense after the Chicago loss were neither inflammatory nor wrong. He was frustrated and 100% accurate. The offense can’t be one-dimensional.
Cook is a dynamic talent and game-changer at running back, but predictability is doomsday against competent NFL defenses. The best offenses exploit weaknesses. Some games, that invites a run-heavy focus. And some games, that means letting Cousins fire away to Diggs and Thielen if teams cheat to stop Cook.
“Balance doesn’t mean 50-50,” Stefanski said. “However the numbers shake out, we’re not that concerned. The thing we talked about in the offseason when we put this offense together was marrying the run and pass game together. And I think you see glimpses of where we’re getting with that.”
The most illuminating development of Sunday’s performance wasn’t back-to-back long touchdown passes to Diggs but instead what happened after those splash plays. Philadelphia trimmed a 17-point deficit to 24-20 in the third quarter. A laugher suddenly became a contest.
Stefanski didn’t become tight and abandon his script. He didn’t fall into a trap of playing it safe by handing the ball to Cook over and over. He opened that next series with three consecutive pass plays, which resulted in three consecutive completions totaling 37 yards. He followed that with a reverse to Diggs, who wanted to pass, saw no receiver open and scrambled around like he was playing backyard football.
One can assume Mike Zimmer watched that sequence unfold from the sideline as if wincing at a car crash in slow motion. But Stefanski stuck to his guns on that series and was rewarded. The Vikings scored a touchdown, and the threat was over.
“If your players are making plays in either department, you keep feeding it,” he said. “Go back to the Atlanta game. If you’re running it that well, it’s hard to get away from it. If you’re throwing [well vs. Philadelphia], it’s hard to get away from it. If the guys are making plays for you, there’s a certain level of trust.”
That trust was on display Sunday. Trust and a dash of creativity, which made it a good day at the office for the guy calling the plays.