Through three weeks the Minnesota Vikings offense has looked like a well-oiled machine. A Week 2 slip against the Steelers can be put down to a late change of quarterback, but against the Saints in Week 1 and last Sunday against the Buccaneers, the Vikings offense has been downright unstoppable.
Sam Bradford and Case Keenum are not exactly names you associate with an all-powerful passing game. So what is happening in Minnesota?
While Kareem Hunt is headlining SportsCenter and dominating highlight reels, Dalvin Cook has also been a rookie sensation in the backfield this season.
Through three games the Vikings are running for 4.0 yards per carry. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering that the Vikings were the worst rushing team in the NFL last season, finishing last in yards (1,205) and yards per carry (3.2), being middle of the pack is a huge improvement for Minnesota.
That step forward has meant that defenses can’t just sit back and play pass against the Vikings like they did last season, they have to commit numbers to the box and focus on Cook, and that leaves coverage lessened against straight-drop passes, and leaves the entire defense vulnerable to play action.
That was on display early against the Buccaneers, who constantly left themselves exposed in the secondary to try and control Cook. They held the Vikings running game to just 3.4 yards a carry on Sunday, but gave up 369 yards through the air as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen ran wild in open space.
For a while, Kyle Rudolph was the most impressive thing about the Vikings receiving options. Then they spent a 2016 first-round pick on Laquon Treadwell to try and improve things.
Treadwell caught one pass in 2016. He has been better this year, bringing down five passes so far, but the stars of this receiver group are Stefon Diggs, a fifth-round pick in 2015, and Adam Thielen, who went undrafted in 2013.
These two diamonds in the rough shined in 2016, putting up 1,870 yards and eight touchdowns between them, but now that they have had a whole offseason with Bradford and Keenum, along with another year under Pat Shurmur's scheme, everything is starting to come together brilliantly.
Thielen (299) and Diggs (293) are currently sitting second and third in the league in receiving, behind only Antonio Brown. Despite an ever-changing quarterback situation, the Vikings' passing offense is one of the best in the league. With a 69.9 pass completion percent (5th), 8.6 yards per attempt (5th), a 115.4 passer rating (4th), and 285 yards a game (3rd), the Vikings have very quietly, and rather quickly, put together a fearsome passing attack.
Route running master-class
Neither Diggs nor Thielen fit the mold of "elite receiver". They don't stand at 6'4", they aren't running sub-4.4 40-yard times, their Mockdraftable comparisons peak at Laveranues Coles. But they are successful because they both generate separation thanks to terrific route running.
This is on the first drive against Tampa, and despite an eight-yard cushion and a hasty backpedal from Vernon Hargreaves at the bottom of the screen, Thielen gets beyond him with a quick bend inside and then a break out. It's a good throw from Keenum, but Thielen gives him a huge window to drop the ball into thanks to his excellent route.
Diggs too gets Hargreaves with late and quick darts during a deep route.
It's moments like this that allow a pair of "slower" receivers to work themselves open downfield and dominate secondaries despite getting passes from Case Keenum and his 6.8 yards per attempt.
Is this sustainable?
As long as Dalvin Cook is rumbling in the backfield there will be more opportunities downfield as teams will be less able to leave two safeties deep, creating more space for Thielen and Diggs to work.
Meanwhile, the Vikings are showing enough wrinkles in their run game and their play action up front to freeze linebackers and keep defensive coordinators guessing. For as long as that is happening, and it is slowing down the pass rush and keeping the quarterback clean, then Thielen and Diggs should run riot on all but the very best secondaries.
Detroit's tough defense will provide a test for the Vikings this Sunday, and tell us which team is most likely to challenge Green Bay throughout the season, but outside of Baltimore (Oct. 22) and Carolina (Dec. 10) the Vikings schedule is relatively free of elite pass defenses.
Thielen and Diggs could be at the top of the receiving boards for some time.
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