Spreading the defense

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

I was standing next to a football man this spring when Minnesota first unveiled the formation. There was nothing too unusual until we identified the three players standing in the backfield. The quarterback, Sage Rosenfels at the time, was in the shotgun. Adrian Peterson stood about two yards to his left, with Percy Harvin two yards to Rosenfels’ right.

On the first play, Rosenfels handed the ball to Peterson and faked a pass to Harvin in the opposite flat. On the next play, Harvin grabbed the handoff while Peterson decoyed in the other direction. Later, we saw a fake to Peterson and a quick pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the seam.

The Vikings’ version of the spread offense isn’t groundbreaking from a football perspective. But the combination of players Minnesota has assembled to run it could make it one of the more intriguing onfield developments in the NFC North this season. Nothing is unstoppable, but intuitively it makes sense that sending two elite open-field runners in opposite directions will create regular mismatches for most defenses.

Vikings coaches employed the formation only twice in Sunday’s 34-20 victory at Cleveland, but both plays resulted in first downs and -- at the very least -- gave opponents a new wrinkle to consider. Ultimately, the inherent mismatch in this look could prove a test for an offense that hasn’t been quick to embrace change over the years.

In other words: How much of the spread will coach Brad Childress, a noted devotee to his version of the West Coast offense, be willing to incorporate into the scheme? For now, I believe it will fall under the “change of pace” category while the Vikings continue their transition to new quarterback Brett Favre.

“We hope it will throw them off-balance a little bit,” Harvin said. “Especially with Adrian running the ball so good. With me coming in the backfield, they don't know which way we can go with it. That's just one of the things we're going to use to try and create mismatches."

Childress wouldn’t have introduced the alignment at all had Harvin not been available with the draft’s No. 22 overall pick. Harvin excelled in the hybrid back/receiver position at the University of Florida, gaining almost as many yards rushing (1,851) as he did receiving (1,929) in three seasons with the Gators.

As Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell tells the story, Childress turned to him on the night of the draft and asked for a menu of Harvin-specific plays. Bevell picked out about 15 from the existing playbook and then added another 10 or 15. The spread and the Wildcat, which the Vikings used in preseason, both developed from that initial conversation.

“We are up there trying to diagram everything we can,” Bevell said this spring. “We are looking at things we do. We are looking at things other teams have done and trying to get the ball to our playmakers.”

The formation first appeared in the first quarter Sunday at Cleveland, when Harvin went in motion from a receiver’s position and arrived to flank Favre just before the snap. He took the shotgun handoff and ran a sweep-like play around the left side of the line for 11 yards. On the second play, in the second quarter, Favre faked to Harvin and tossed a short swing pass to Peterson, who rumbled for 18 yards.

Here are the unique advantages of this formation, as I see it:

  • While there is only one Adrian Peterson, Harvin is an excellent open-field runner in his own right. He is one of the fastest three players on the team and takes a direct, north-south approach. In the short-term, as defenses continue to focus obsessively on Peterson, it makes sense to think Harvin will see plenty of daylight when he runs in the opposite direction. “That was just a little bit of what we’ve installed,” Harvin said. “We’ll look to keep it going.”

  • It gets the ball into Peterson’s hands in a non-traditional format. While he’s a threat to score on any play from any formation, opponents spend plenty of time scheming against the Vikings’ base zone-blocking, two-back set. Let’s just say he’s less likely to pop a big run out of that alignment than one that’s a little less familiar. During his 155-yard second-half performance Sunday, Peterson averaged only 3.0 yards per carry from the two-back set. He averaged 17.8 yards per carry when the Vikings had a three- or four-receiver formation, according to video review by ESPN Stats & Information.

  • It finds a way to get two big offensive threats involved in the same play at the same time. We’ve spent some time over the past year wondering why the Vikings couldn’t get Peterson and backup tailback Chester Taylor on the field concurrently. Taylor is an excellent receiver, and you always want to maximize the pressure on the defense. Perhaps Harvin will develop into a more dynamic version of Taylor in the arrangement we have mulled.

Some of you will contend I’ve jumped the gun by elevating Harvin into a conversation with Peterson after just one game. At the end of the year, I might look back and agree with you. But looking objectively at Sunday’s game, you can see how fundamental both players already are to the team.

As you see in the chart above, Peterson and Harvin accounted for almost 73 percent of the Vikings’ all-purpose yards Sunday when you include Harvin’s kickoff return yardage. Had Favre not arrived this summer, you would have heard a lot more about Harvin’s potential impact on this offense.

“I’ve been saying this the whole time [and] before he even took a snap in a Vikings jersey,” Peterson said. “[Harvin] is a playmaker. He’s a guy that can get the ball and he can take it the distance. If one guy misses, he can take it to the house. He’s going to open it up for us, and we’re going to continue to try to get the ball in his hands so he can make plays and help this offense.”