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After Vikings copied Seattle’s offense, Seahawks changed things up

When the Vikings pulled into Seattle for a Monday night game in December 2018, they were at the height of their existential crisis on offense.

Only a Dalvin Cook touchdown with 1:10 to play kept them from being shut out for the first time since 2007, and the morning after their 21-7 loss to the Seahawks, coach Mike Zimmer fired first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo after months of disagreement about the direction of the offense.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the 2018 Vikings threw the ball 55% of the time on first and second down in close game situations (leading or trailing by seven points or less). That ratio was tied for the eighth-highest in the league; the Seahawks team that beat the Vikings that night threw the ball in such situations less than any team in the NFL.

“Just some beautiful football,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said that night, after a game in which Seattle gained 214 yards on the ground and 60 in the air. “Not the kind of football that everybody loves, but the kind of football that we love, and I bet Coach Zimmer, he thinks the same thing.”

In the 21 months since the game, the Vikings have worked to craft, and maintain, an offense that would employ heavy personnel and run the ball more than almost any in the league. But while the mantra in Minnesota has become “Get the ball to Dalvin Cook,” there’s been a dramatic shift in Seattle summed up by a social media meme-turned-rallying cry: Let Russ Cook.

The undefeated Seahawks team the Vikings will face on Sunday night has embraced a philosophical shift, centered around spread formations, aggressive play calls on early downs and turning quarterback Russell Wilson loose. The Seahawks are throwing on first and second down more often than almost any team in the league, and Wilson has already thrown seven touchdowns of 20 yards or more this season, according to Pro Football Focus. No other passer has more than four.

“We’re trying to feature our strengths and figure out with the players that we have, what they can do well and how we can put them in the best positions,” Carroll said. “Russell has just evolved so much. He’s just so in command of what’s going on, and we’re just following the strengths that he brings us. … We’ve got really good runners, and we really are in love with Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde, you know, and Travis Homer. These guys can run it, so it’s not a question of having anything missing. We’re just trying to move the football and score points, and it’s just been working out pretty well so far.”

The “Let Russ Cook” movement was born out of a tweet from Seahawks fan Zach Whitman, and found traction with an analytics-friendly section of the fan base who had urged for Seattle to build its offense around Wilson.

Advanced statistics have shown passing plays to be more efficient than running plays — according to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens’ top-ranked running offense delivered 100.56 expected points last year, or about five more than the Buccaneers’ 13th-ranked passing game — and the analytics community has long argued NFL teams should throw the ball much more frequently than they do.

Wilson gave assent to the idea of opening up the offense before the season, and the 69-year-old Carroll approved the shift, which has offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer calling pass plays more frequently than all but two teams in the league (the Eagles and Bills), even when Seattle is ahead. On second downs where the Seahawks have needed more than six yards for a conversion this season, they’ve thrown the ball 31 times and run it only seven.

“They’ve changed a little bit,” Zimmer said. “They’re obviously letting Russell Wilson be more explosive. I think they’re No. 1 in the league in pass average. They’ve got terrific receivers, they’re all fast … [David] Moore has made some great catches. [Adding Greg] Olsen, the tight end, I think that’s helped them. They still have Carson as the runner and obviously Russell makes them go.”

The shift means the Seahawks could present a particularly tough matchup for the Vikings’ secondary, which could get Mike Hughes back from a neck injury on Sunday night but remains in transition early this season. Asked on Thursday to name the one area where the Vikings have to excel against Wilson, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson responded only after chuckling for about 10 seconds.

“He’s good, man,” Patterson said. “I mean, he’s one of the best in the league, so I can’t tell you a weakness. That’s two weeks in a row that we’ve had to defend an extremely athletic quarterback that have a cannon for an arm and can throw the ball.”

And Seattle, once again, is on the opposite end of the offensive spectrum from the Vikings.

On early downs in close games this season, the Vikings have run the ball a league-high 58 % of the time (just ahead of Cleveland, where former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has run it 57% of the time in such situations). The Vikings’ offensive direction remains the one Stefanski built with Gary Kubiak last season before he became the Browns’ head coach. Kubiak has used a fullback on first or second down 41 % of the time, which ranks second in the league, while only the Packers, 49ers and Browns use three receivers on early downs less frequently than the Vikings do.

But Kubiak, who put Peyton Manning in shotgun and employed more three-receiver sets during his Super Bowl-winning season with the Broncos in 2015, can appreciate the sentiment behind Let Russ Cook.

“You sit in a room with these great quarterbacks and they have vision and they know what they like and they know what they do best,” Kubiak said. “Sometimes you as a coach are sitting there attacking something and they’re telling you, ‘Hey, I don’t like that. Let me do this and I’ll do it well.’ So you’ve got to listen.”

 

 

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