What will the Vikings' offense look like under Kevin O'Connell?

If Kevin O'Connell can achieve the same level of success that other Sean McVay assistants have, such as the Packers' Matt LaFleur and Bengals' Zac Taylor, the Vikings will be in good shape. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- The Los Angeles Rams won Super Bowl LVI with a top-10 offense in both scoring (7th) and yards (9th), led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, who finished the regular season with the fourth-highest QBR (63.8), sixth-best passer rating (102.9) and third-best yards-per-completion average (12.1).

New Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, who was the Rams’ offensive coordinator from 2020 to '21, has talked about implementing much of what made Los Angeles successful offensively into what he has planned for Minnesota. A heavy dose of pre-snap motion and movement, reliance on three-receiver sets, a zone run game and play-action concepts are expected to be a part of what O’Connell builds in his first stint as a head coach.

The offense the Vikings will deploy in 2022 will have a lot of similarities to the scheme Minnesota utilized in previous seasons. After all, O’Connell is part of the Sean McVay coaching tree and a descendent of Mike Shanahan's offensive system, which quarterback Kirk Cousins has played in for most of his career, including the last three seasons in Minnesota.

Cousins is entering the final year of his contract, which carries a $45 million cap hit. On the heels of free agency, O’Connell and the Vikings must decide if Cousins fits into their financial and long-term plans, or whether they’d be better off moving on now by trading the quarterback.

During his introductory news conference, O’Connell said he anticipates Cousins being a part of what the Vikings do this season. He lauded the quarterback’s accuracy, along with his timing and rhythm to distribute the ball to playmakers, and he put Cousins in the same “elite thrower” class as Stafford.

“I think we can build an offensive system like we had in L.A. to take advantage of that skill set,” O’Connell said. “I see us being able to build an offense to maximize what he does best, which happens to be what a lot of quarterbacks want to be able to do best, a quarterback-friendly system where they can have an attacking mindset, aggressive mindset.”

Regardless of who’s at quarterback for Minnesota in 2022 and beyond, this scheme can benefit others on offense in a big way. Here’s what that looks like, and what we can learn from how McVay’s other former assistants fared in applying concepts of this scheme to their teams.

Matt LaFleur was McVay’s offensive coordinator in Los Angeles during the 2017 season and filled the same role with the Tennessee Titans the following season before he was hired as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach in 2019. The Cincinnati Bengals’ Zac Taylor spent the 2018 season as the Rams’ quarterbacks coach before the Bengals hired him as their head coach a year later.

Both former McVay assistants have adapted concepts consistent with McVay’s scheme to their own teams. Of course, the skill sets of each team’s players factored into what LaFleur and Taylor deployed on the field. The capabilities of Minnesota’s skill players will determine the same for O’Connell.

Three-receiver sets are a staple in the Rams’ offense. Los Angeles ran an NFL-high 83% of its plays out of 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) in 2021 and passed 63% of the time from that package, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But Green Bay’s use of 11 personnel dropped from 76% in 2018 to 61% in LaFleur’s first year in 2019, and it has been lower than 60% in each of the past two seasons. It has been the opposite in Cincinnati. The Bengals ranked first in the percentage of plays utilizing 11 personnel from 2019 to '20 and were second behind the Rams this season, running 77% of their plays from this formation.

It helps to look at each team’s depth chart: Cincinnati has one of the best receiving trios in the NFL in Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, while Green Bay’s receiving corps is headlined by All-Pro Davante Adams, who finished with 1,040 more receiving yards than any other Packers pass-catcher.

The Vikings' receiving corps aligns more closely to Cincinnati’s given the tandem of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and the emergence of K.J. Osborn. Minnesota likely would have had two 1,000-yard receivers last season had Thielen not missed four games due to injury.

Minnesota ran only 11 personnel on 47% of plays in 2021 (fifth lowest in NFL) but threw 73% of the time from that formation. Los Angeles had more balance (a 63-37 pass-run split) out of 11 personnel, which helped keep defenses guessing at what to expect, and it let the Rams capitalize on running out of that formation against nickel defenses.

“We're doing a lot of things that are simple for us, but maybe a little bit more difficult for a defense to defend,” O’Connell said. “That illusion of complexity where teams think that there's a lot of offense that they're defending, but really we're only doing small details here and there just to change the picture, change angles, give ourselves an advantage wherever we see fit, both in the run game and in the pass game, using tempo as a weapon. Things that people have seen our offense do in L.A. that they will absolutely see our offense do here in Minnesota.”

An expected spike in 11 personnel in Minnesota will benefit running back Dalvin Cook and the Vikings’ rushing attack, considering what receivers will be asked to do while on the field for a designed run.

“A critical point to having run-game success in that offense is the ability of wide receivers to lead and insert, to block a safety and to block on the edge,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. “They are a big part of what they do.”

The use of pre-snap motion is another staple of this scheme. The Rams moved players around pre-snap on 47.4% of plays in 2021. Both LaFleur and Taylor utilized this concept differently; while the Bengals’ use of pre-snap motion hovered around where the Rams were in 2021 at 45%, Green Bay had the sixth-highest pre-snap motion rate in the NFL and jumped from 38% in LaFleur’s first year to 55% in 2021.

Minnesota used pre-snap motion on 45% of plays in 2021 (17th) and could benefit from using it more frequently given Cousins was more effective when sending players in motion before the play began. The quarterback had a 71% completion percentage, 20-4 TD-INT ratio and 66 Total QBR when a play called for pre-snap motion versus a 63% completion percentage, 13-3 TD-INT ratio and 43 QBR with no motion before the ball was hiked.

“I think the difference (with this offense) is it’ll be a little bit more heavily schemed under O’Connell, in my opinion, and I think the run game will be a little bit more heavily schemed with misdirection,” Bowen said. “I think that will lead into play-action throws as well, but more motion and movement pre- and post-snap to create advantages from an offensive perspective.”

Rams star Cooper Kupp had one of the most prolific seasons by a wide receiver in recent history, leading him to being named the MVP of Super Bowl LVI. The wide receiver led the NFL in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving TDs (16) and evolved into one of the NFL’s most dynamic and dangerous playmakers.

The blueprint Los Angeles used for Kupp could be one O’Connell and the Vikings follow with Jefferson.

“I think it works really well for Justin Jefferson, because they can isolate him as the backside (receiver) that you saw last year in Minnesota a lot more than his first year with the Vikings because he developed into a guy who can take over as a one-on-one player,” Bowen said. “That will be part of their offense, but so will the schemed-up throws. They will scheme shot plays for him down the field on deep crossers, deep overs, deep post routes.

“He will be a target at all three levels for them. He will be a volume target that you can scheme open and isolate. That’s what you really want with a star receiver.”

Kupp and Jefferson are different types of receivers who share similar traits. The Rams capitalized on Kupp’s success rate from the slot, lining him up there on 648 snaps in 2021. Jefferson set an LSU record for catches out of the slot (110) in 2019 with 17 touchdowns, but he was in the slot for only 250 snaps last year.

Should O’Connell opt to play Jefferson in the slot, thus creating more opportunities for explosive gains off catch-and-run plays for the star receiver, it could also yield more high-percentage throws off play-action (a benefit to the QB in this scheme) and opportunities for Jefferson on third down.

“You can make Justin Jefferson a receiver that gets 100-plus catches consistently every year,” Bowen said.