Kevin O'Connell's aggressive playcalling before halftime has paid off for Vikings

Kevin O'Connell's offense has been one of the NFL's most aggressive in the final two minutes of the first half. Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

EAGAN, Minn. -- In the weeks after he was hired as the Minnesota Vikings' new coach, Kevin O'Connell spoke frequently about his game management theories. The first and most prominent idea he mentioned was the value of the minutes before halftime, a micro-focus of the "Middle 8" concept he learned as a New England Patriots quarterback under coach Bill Belichick.

"Games can catastrophically swing without you having a lot to do with it," O'Connell said, "other than the initial decision that you made."

Three games into his rookie season, O'Connell has backed his theories with action. It's a small sample size, but the Vikings' offense has been one of the NFL's most aggressive in the final two minutes of the first half -- a small but not insignificant reason they have started 2-1. They have scored two touchdowns in those moments, tied for the most in the league and double their comparable output during the entire 2021 season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings have run the NFL's fourth-most offensive plays in those final two minutes (16) and have accumulated the league's second-most yards (110). And on their final possession of the first half, the Vikings have run a total of 11 plays. All 11 have been passes.

"I've never been part of an offense that just was attacking, and attacking, and attacking," receiver Adam Thielen said after a late first-half score in Week 1 gave the Vikings a 17-0 halftime lead over the Green Bay Packers. "It didn't matter the score. It didn't matter the situation. We were attacking. It felt good."

In that instance, the Vikings had driven 74 yards on seven plays over 2 minutes, 23 seconds, capped by quarterback Kirk Cousins' 36-yard touchdown pass to receiver Justin Jefferson with 45 seconds remaining. And when safety Harrison Smith intercepted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the first play of the ensuing possession, O'Connell continued to attack, calling three consecutive passes before the half ended.

That sequence gave the Vikings a commanding lead in what ended in a 23-7 victory. It repeated Sunday, when tailback Dalvin Cook's 4-yard run with 1:12 left in the first half cut the Detroit Lions' lead to 14-7. After the Vikings' defense forced a punt, O'Connell pushed, even though they had gained possession at their 8-yard line with only one timeout and 31 seconds left.

A 15-yard screen pass to tight end Irv Smith Jr. prompted O'Connell to use his timeout and put his foot on the gas. A 21-yard pass interference penalty and a 12-yard pass to receiver K.J. Osborn got the Vikings to the Lions' 44-yard line before time expired.

O'Connell indicated he would have pulled back if the screen to Smith had been less successful. Notably, however, there have been few hints of concern about the possibility of a mistake that gifts an opponent a score.

"That first-and-10 play is important to kind of determine where we'll go from there and the level of aggression we'll have," he said. "It's an evolving thing throughout the success of that early down. But I think a lot of it is just the confidence we have in our guys and in Kirk to make good decisions and understand that the risk-reward in that moment might be different than other times in the game."

It's a responsibility that weighs heavily on Cousins, who has the NFL's sixth-lowest interception rate (1.7%) among qualified quarterbacks since he joined the Vikings in 2018. At times in his career, he has needed encouragement to be aggressive in high-risk moments.

"I think [the aggressiveness] is good," Cousins said. "The key for me, whenever we do it, is to protect the football, avoid anything that could give them a chance to get points."

The attacking mindset has set the foundation for what the Vikings hope will be a formidable offense over time. The mentality has also bled into endgame situations, most notably in Week 3 against the Lions. Trailing by three points with 1:10 remaining in the game, the Vikings took possession on their 44-yard line. They had no timeouts, but O'Connell made clear he wanted to win the game in regulation with a touchdown -- not tie it with a field goal.

After an incompletion on first down, Cousins fired a 28-yard pass downfield to Osborn. The Lions took their final timeout, and the Vikings then could have manipulated the clock to attempt a 46-yard field goal on the final play of regulation. Instead, O'Connell called another downfield play that sent three receivers from 15 yards or further downfield. Osborn sprung free and caught a 28-yard score that not only gave the Vikings the lead, but also put the Lions in position to have to go the length of the field in 45 seconds -- without a timeout -- if they were going to win.

"I knew that I didn't want to be in a situation where we kind of dinked and dunked [and said], 'Hey, get up on the ball, go fast, and all of a sudden we weren't playing [to win],'" O'Connell said. "I wanted to score. I wanted to score a touchdown. I wanted to finish this game for our football fans, put maximum pressure on those guys."

There are many ways to judge a rookie coach, and game management is only one of them. But suffice it to say, O'Connell hasn't left his philosophy to the imagination.