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Zone Coverage: What we can learn from Gary Kubiak's last stint calling plays

Sam Ekstrom gives some brilliant insight for what fans could expect to see in 2020.
Gary Kubiak

This story first appeared at Zone Coverage and was re-shared through a collaboration with Bring Me The News

The last time the Vikings entered two consecutive seasons with the same offensive coordinator was 2015-16 with Norv Turner. Those are also the last seasons Minnesota’s new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak called plays in his short stint as head coach with the Denver Broncos. After benefiting from Kubiak’s influence as an offensive advisor in 2019, the Vikings are banking on him to further enhance his already impressive resumé as a playcaller — perhaps giving the Vikings some much-needed stability at offensive coordinator.

Five years ago at this time, Kubiak was preparing for what would be one of the most exhilarating seasons of his coaching career. When he took over the Broncos coaching job following a one-year stint as the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, Kubiak inherited the most talented quarterback he’d ever coached and one of the greatest to play the game in Peyton Manning.

But Manning didn’t make it easy on Kubiak. Age and injury led to a sharp decline in Manning’s play, which put more pressure on the Broncos coaching staff to unlock different ways to win. Unable to coast on Manning’s Hall of Fame arm — and instead forced to roll the dice with Brock Osweiler while Manning missed six games — the Broncos grinded out a 12-4 record, AFC West title and eventual Super Bowl win thanks to a suffocating defense and efficient-enough offense.

Following Manning’s retirement, Kubiak’s work in 2016 was almost as impressive despite finishing with a 9-7 record. Denver rode Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch to a 7-3 start, only to finish the season 2-4 and narrowly miss the postseason. Kubiak resigned after the season, citing health issues.

After spending three seasons in a variety of consulting roles, Kubiak is preparing once again to take command of an offense.

“I look forward to it. It’s something I’ve done for, what, 26-27 years, so I’ve done it,” Kubiak said this past February, “but I also think it’s something you have to prepare to do. Zim’s got to put me back to work, put me in situations in practice where I’m getting going again, but I feel very comfortable because of the group I’m around.”

So what can Vikings fans take from Kubiak’s most recent work as a playcaller? His time with the Broncos bears out similarities to what he helped institute with the Vikings in 2019, but there are some differences, as well, that could influence the 2020 offensive approach.

Play-calling assistance

Now-Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski called the Vikings’ plays last season with occasional input from Kubiak, who watched from a box upstairs. With the Broncos, Kubiak also received playcalling input from quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison — Minnesota’s current offensive line coach. Kubiak would relay the calls to Knapp, who would translate them into the quarterback’s ear.

“We’ve all been together before, all known each other, worked with each other for a long time. We like how it works,” Kubiak said at the time. “It’ll go smoothly, and we’ll get things as quickly as we need to, and when we go no-huddle, the plan’s in place for that, too.”

This collaboration, however, drew some criticism, particularly in 2016 when the Broncos offense scuffled toward the end of the season. Kubiak said late that season he might be calling 70-90% of games, while Knapp would fill in the gaps since he had direct communication with the quarterback.

With two inexperienced quarterbacks leading the way that season, the Broncos finished 22nd in net yards per passing attempt and 26th in scoring percentage. Siemian finished 23rd in the league in passer rating. Having multiple voices calling the play didn’t seem to affect Denver’s tempo, however. Football Outsiders clocked them as one of the fastest 10 playcalling teams in neutral situations each of Kubiak’s seasons.

Kubiak’s title in Minnesota, though, may allow him to fully focus on playcalling. As the head coach with Denver, Kubiak had other responsibilities around defensive strategy, special teams and game management. As the Vikings’ offensive coordinator, Kubiak would have less on his plate. That being said, he has a quarterbacks coach he ostensibly trusts in his son Klint Kubiak. Dennison is also in the mix in Minnesota, but it would be unorthodox to have the offensive line coach taking part in the playcalling.

Discovering which Kubiak will be relaying play calls to Kirk Cousins will be an early talking point this preseason.

Run-pass balance

Because of Kubiak’s reputation as a run-first offensive mind, there is apprehension amongst Vikings fans about Kubiak doubling down on Minnesota’s heavy reliance on the ground game that it demonstrated in 2019. The Vikings ran it the fourth-most times in the NFL while throwing it the third fewest. They also ran the ball the 10th-most times on first down and the fourth-most times on second down.

“I know one thing,” said Kubiak, “you have to be physical to be successful in this business. Coach (Mike Zimmer) wants to be physical, so we’ll start with that.”

Zimmer’s desire to run the ball and control the clock may outweigh the inclinations of his playcallers. John DeFilippo, for example, lasted just 13 games because of his philosophical clash with Zimmer. But Kubiak was extremely balanced as a playcaller during his Denver years — not overly dependent on the run as some may have supposed. The Broncos finished between 13th and 17th in both rushing attempts and passing attempts both of his years there, even though they switched in 2016 from a legend in Peyton Manning to a pair of raw passers on rookie contracts.

“I think you love to be balanced,” Kubiak said earlier this year. “Each given day in this league, you don’t know how you’re going to win. Sometimes you show up, and you can run the ball a lot and find a way to get out with the W. Some weeks you get behind and you have to throw the ball. I think you have to build to do both.”

The Vikings’ goal under Zimmer has been to grab early leads and wear teams down in the run game. The Vikings ran the ball 60% of the time when leading in 2019, almost 11% higher than the league average. Conversely, even though Kubiak’s 2015 Broncos led a vast majority of the time during their Super Bowl season, they were still well below league average in running with the lead, doing so just 46.5% of the time.

Minnesota had an edge in the ground game to start last season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry in the first eight games while converting first downs at a 27% rate. With Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison banged up the second half of the year, the Vikings ran the ball around six fewer times per game and less successfully, falling to 4.0 yards per carry and under 20% in first-down rate.

If Kubiak could improve the team’s run-pass balance it may make the Vikings less predictable and keep their backs fresher down the stretch.

Formational differences

The Vikings were fairly extreme last year in the way they used formations. Part of this was an effective strategy meant to disguise certain plays by using similar personnel and then motioning players into different spots. For example, per Sharp Football, they were second in both “12” (one running back, two tight ends) and “21” (two running backs, one tight end) personnel groups because of their preference to use an extra blocker, whether that was a fullback or a second tight end. Sometimes, for instance, fullback C.J. Ham would motion into a wide receiver’s spot, or tight end Irv Smith Jr. would motion into the slot.

Minnesota was dead last in “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end) by a wide margin, using the formation almost 150 fewer times than the next lowest team. They never used a five-receiver set, and only used four wide receivers three times.

Some of these trends were in line with what Kubiak demonstrated in 2016 in Denver, when Sharp’s personnel data was first available. Those Broncos were 26th in “11” personnel usage and fourth in “21” personnel thanks to fullback Andy Janovich. However, they almost never used “12” personnel, which the Vikings did frequently last year, and they used “10” personnel (one running back, four receivers) the third most in the league, whereas the Vikings almost never used it.

Based on comments made by Kubiak and Zimmer this offseason, the Vikings appear content sticking with a heavy-set offense that remains committed to the run and sets Cousins up for play-action.

It may not be realistic to expect more three- or four-receiver sets after losing Stefon Diggs in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. Minnesota’s current No. 2 wideout is rookie Justin Jefferson, and No. 3 is up for grabs between a cadre of unproven options like Tajae Sharpe, Bisi Johnson and Chad Beebe.

“Every year is different,” Kubiak said on a recent Zoom call. “You have to find a way to get better. How do we get better? We’ve got to find some new things to do, some new ways to go out there to try to move the football.”

Kubiak has shown great balance in his past work as a playcaller, seemingly without being over-reliant on one facet of the game. How will Kubiak’s methodology pair with Zimmer’s desire for a smashmouth offense? That will work itself out over the next couple months.

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