MINNEAPOLIS -- The fallout for the Minnesota Vikings following the firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in Week 15 resulted in intensified pressure for a team hanging on to its playoff hopes for dear life.
Coach Mike Zimmer said he made the move to relieve DeFilippo of his duties and elevate quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski to interim OC because he didn't want the season to be wasted. In effect, that move increased the burden this team was already facing, needing to prove it is capable of playing like a team eyeing a deep postseason run.
By the end of the first quarter of Minnesota's 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, that pressure was nowhere to be found. Stefanski was doling out high-fives on the sideline from rookie right tackle Brian O'Neill to running back Latavius Murray, who minutes before had rushed 18 yards for Minnesota's third touchdown in the first 14 minutes.
Stefanski's debut as a playcaller resulted in Minnesota's highest scoring output of the season.
"It was simpler, but we definitely still had everything that we needed," wide receiver Adam Thielen said of Stefanski's game plan. "Coach did a great job of keeping the defense on their heels. They didn't know if it was a run or pass. Obviously, he let the guys who were playing well and playing hot take over and carry our offense."
Stefanski's game plan pulled back on things that had made the Vikings successful in the past. The longest tenured coach in Minnesota, having been on staff in various roles since 2006, Stefanski utilized a handful of concepts often seen in former OC Pat Shurmur's scheme during the Vikings' 2017 run, including the use of multiple tight end sets to aid a powerful rushing attack, running back and receiver screens and the use of play-action.
"I think Kevin (Stefanski) was as prepared as anyone for this opportunity," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "He has been here the longest out of anyone on offense. He's a guy that has worked under many different offensive coordinators, he saw what they did well, maybe what they did not do as well, and what he would do once it was his turn. I think you saw that throughout the week with little changes. He didn't come in and overhaul everything.
"There were things we did a little bit differently this week that you could tell Kevin was waiting on his opportunity to do this. I think he learned a lot of things last year from our offense and what Pat (Shurmur) did with this offense that we got back to today."
In the first quarter, the Vikings' offense packed a punch on three consecutive drives that resulted in Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook and Murray reaching the end zone. Kirk Cousins looked the most comfortable he'd been in weeks, going under center for all but two of his snaps, utilizing play-action to set up his playmakers in space, rolling out to hit receivers downfield and executing an up-tempo attack to routinely catch a porous Dolphins' defense off guard.
On play-action, Cousins was 6-for-6 passing for 103 yards and a touchdown. In 13 games under DeFilippo, the Vikings utilized play-action on 18.6 percent of their dropbacks. In Stefanski's debut, Minnesota called play-action on 32 percent of Cousins' attempts - all of which came from under center.
"Play-actions are better under center," Zimmer said. "There is more suck by the defense, there is more suck by the linebackers, by the safeties when they're under center. It's very simple."
The run game, which notched a season-high 40 rushes, was able to aid Cousins in ways it hadn't during a stretch of recent losses. Cook totaled 109 yards from scrimmage in the first half alone (82 rushing, 27 receiving), a career high, aided by an effective zone blocking scheme that allowed him and Murray to create big gains on inside and outside runs. The second-year rusher finished with 136 yards rushing on 19 carries and two touchdowns.
Following the game, Cook went around to thank each of his offensive linemen for the role they played in his career day.
"No them, no me," Cook said. "That's the message. The way they delivered today -- unbelievable. They opened holes that were big, too big. Y'all probably could've hit those holes. They were big today. You have to give all the credit to those guys. That's why I told Pat Elflein, that first touchdown, one of them had to spike it. And he was the guy."
The high hopes the Vikings laid forth in the first quarter fizzled. A hot start cooled quickly upon Cousins committing his 17th turnover (which ties New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold for the most in the NFL) of the season midway through the second quarter. Facing third-and-15 from the Vikings' 47-yard line, Cousins threw the third pick-6 of his career on a screen pass intended for Diggs.
The momentum-changing play exposed many of the same issues that have hurt the Vikings all season. Cousins' feel in the pocket appeared off after that play, and the Vikings got away from what they were doing so well early on.
Cousins struggled to execute out of the shotgun in the second and third quarter, which Minnesota chose to divert back to despite the under-center game making the offense so effective early on. The bootleg action was limited, too.
Twice in the second half, Minnesota had to settle for field goals. Even after Marcus Sherels returned a punt 70 yards to put the Vikings just outside the red zone, Cousins and the offense couldn't translate good field position into a scoring opportunity.
What brought the Vikings back in the fourth quarter was a deep shot to Aldrick Robinson, who notched his fifth touchdown of the season on 17 catches. Cook sealed the Vikings' fate with a spin move TD run that put an exclamation point on the 41 points the Vikings scored on Sunday.
According to ESPN's FPI, the Vikings have a 78 percent chance to make the postseason after beating Miami. Those 41 points may speak more to what the Vikings did collectively in Stefanski's debut, which was arguably their most complete game to date.
"It's so much more than the offense," Cousins said. "When you look at Marcus Sherels' punt return that gave us three points, we didn't do anything as an offense. We were terrible. We went three plays and out. Walked off the field undoing my chin strap, I'm ticked off. Get three points out of it, that's not our offense. They go for it on fourth-and-11 and our defense gets a sack, gives us the ball on the whatever yard line, 20-yard line, 15-yard line, that's not our offense. That's our defense. And that's the whole team putting the offense in position where they have to go for it on fourth-and-11 backed up in their own territory.
"When you start to play complimentary football, certain phases start to look really good but maybe it's other people helping you out. And guess what? The reason there's nine sacks is because we scored 21 points in the first quarter and gave our defense an opportunity to pin their ears back and go. It's everybody working together and that's NFL football, team football."