Hello, Field Gulls! My name is Arif Hasan, and I'm a contributor over at the Daily Norseman; I'm one of the many fans over there with mixed feelings about the departure of our #12, who became your #11 after learning that the jersey assigned to #12 was unattainable.
I've been tracking the Vikings' offensive (and defensive) playcalling over the course of the season, and thought it would be helpful to copy the most relevant notes to give you the Xs and Os on how Bill Musgrave employed Percy Harvin. If this is successful, I'll see if I can dig up some of the more relevant Darrell Bevell game film and let you know how your offensive coordinator handled a playmaker like Harvin.
We'll start with the Jacksonville game. I'll avoid the use of block quotes to make it easier to read. Just know these are copied from much larger posts and may be missing context. I'll also add some of my own notes and X's and O's to further illustrate the point.
Week 1: Jacksonville vs. Minnesota
The 11 package is interesting, because the Vikings have done a lot with it. On four or five instances (not exclusively on third down), the Vikings formation was a "full house" formation, also called an inverted wishbone:
We had Percy Harvin line up as the deep back all but once, if my notes are correct (Adrian Peterson was the other one), and had Felton as one of the fullbacks with Rudolph as the other. The run/pass split was only a little run biased, with Harvin running routes out of the backfield on the pass plays.
Harvin was the best offensive playmaker on the field for either team. He was playing outside the numbers, in the slot, as a returner and in the backfield, running nearly every route and acting as an effective rush option. He showcased excellent block reading ability on his screens, and displayed surprising strength on some of his plays, pushing players much heavier than him in order to gain extra yards.
The young utility receiver did a good job finding space and running precise routes despite the lack of landmarks. He was a reliable option and didn't drop a single pass. His run blocking could have been better.
For this game, I labeled him game MVP.
More on the Full House formation from a different post I wrote up:
The primary philosophical switch from the wishbone to its inverted variant is sacrificing options for versatility. This sacrifice is not nearly so large with running fullbacks, something the Vikings might want to employ slightly more regularly.
But what it loses in deception as a result of sacrificing some option plays, it gains in creating confusion—the defense cannot cheat to one side or the other, even with a tight end on the field to signal which side is the "strong side" given that excessive defensive adjustment will give the offense a big numbers advantage in blocking.
Here, the offense has forced the strong safety into the box and has walled off every defender except the free safety in the backfield. The FS is frozen because it doesn't know whether or not to follow the decoy lead fullback (who takes on the strong safety) or the actual lead fullback (taking on the middle linebacker):
And of course, there are plays that emulate the veer and other options. One great advantage to this formation is how often one can pass out of it because of how it stacks the box. While the Maryland I clogs things up and complicates routes, the inverted wishbone is spaced out enough to flood zones and set receivers free:
The tight end and halfback are flooding the flats while they and the strong-side fullback are hoping to force the free safety to stay home. The split end is running up the field, either dragging a corner (if so, the weak-side fullback is free to catch on the wheel route) or challenging a deep safety—which is likely a strong safety that has to turn around and play catch up as a result of entering the box.
The strong-side fullback will enter the seam both to challenge the free safety (and prevent him from dealing with the split end) and to draw a linebacker. At the break, the fullback comes back in order to create a checkdown for the quarterback.
Both the wishbone and inverted wishbone also have the opportunity to create interesting zone runs, with one fullback cleaning up the back side of the play on the edge and the other one leading or motioning a fullback to stand pat behind a guard to create two lead blockers.
And of course, you can run the bastardized veer (so-bastardized because the quarterback isn't running) I drew up above:
The pitch will be to the trailing fullback if the read of the defensive tackle leads to crashing down on the halfback. The quarterback will be dropping back to meet the halfback in order to give him time to pull back and pitch should the defensive tackle target him. More often than not, the halfback will have an advantage, especially because it will be Adrian Peterson.
The point here is that the Vikings used their All-Pro running back as a means to set up their other playmaker, and Seattle can do the same. With Russell Wilson and Sidney Rice, they have a number of other options as well, including a full triple option from the inverted wishbone:
This is of course an extremely risky triple option that requires that Wilson read the weak-side defensive end, followed by the strong-side defensive end. In the Florida triple option, the pitch man was often Aaron Hernandez with the halfback being Percy Harvin. In this case, Harvin should probably be the halfback while Lynch fills in as the pitch man—I doubt the defense would be fooled with Percy Harvin lining up as a fullback in the formation.
Alternatively, Zach Miller could be the pitch man, lined up as a fullback, with Harvin back deep, simply to spell Lynch. Naturally, Michael Robinson would be the other fullback. The fantastic thing about this play is that, coming out, it's a "12" set that doesn't seem all that set for running (although I suppose Robinson is somewhat of an alert), but Harvin and Miller can motion in to their respective spots pre-snap before running the play.
Of course, it's not Madden. This particular play would only work once every month or so, unless you want Russell Wilson to die. Still, getting five blockers to the second level is worth something. There's a natural level of deception that comes with a late-reacting halfback who initially looks to run between the center and strong-side guard before splitting out. Even more so with a set of options.
The inverted wishbone/"full house" is a great formation because, if you have good route-runners out of the backfield, you've got dozens of passing options as well.
The point is that Harvin creates endless opportunities for deception, and can provide those opportunities to move defenses. His versatility allows you not just to create one-on-one matchups, but to create schematic matchups—a defense in a nickel personnel package might find itself in the wrong package as a result of a pre-snap shift.
For an example of that, we can look to how the Vikings took on the Detroit Lions in Week 4.
Week 4: Minnesota vs. Detroit
We'll start with a play drawn up like this:
There were, of course, some controversial calls by Musgrave, and I won't defend most of them. I will, however, defend the direct snap to Percy Harvin. Take a look at the gif of the play:
Seems dumb, right? Perhaps. But if so, Detroit was even stupider. It's more important to take a look at the stills to see why it could have been effective and what happened on the play.
At the snap, Detroit is in a nickel formation. This is because the Vikings were running a no huddle after entering the first "02" personnel package of the season, with two tight ends and three wide receivers. An "obvious" pass tell, the Vikings had run it for two consecutive plays before this, the first of which was successful.
Detroit's pass defense is on the field, and they're not entirely sure what to do when the see the formation.
More importantly, Detroit (as a result of the no huddle) is playing their base nickel defense. They have one safety in the box, with every corner in off man coverage. One of the corners is eight yards off the line of scrimmage, covering Rudolph (a known red zone threat). The Vikings have never shown this personnel package before, and have also consequently never shown this formation with the package.
The defense has a single-high safety and only seven men in the box.
Here, the Vikings have clearly signaled a run, as Fusco runs a trap to take out Hill and Sullivan neutralizes Suh. This takes advantage of Hill's overpursuit, who is removed from the play. Cliff Avril is intentionally left unblocked for a few reasons: 1) he's the backside end on a play running left 2) he will have to freeze in order to read the play, even if it seems obvious that a run up the middle is coming (his assignment will task him to attack Ponder on the first step, anyway) 3) blocking Justin Durant on the play is much more important, as he'll have more space and time to make the play. Loadholt shoots out to do so. Avril, as expected, is frozen.
Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson have found their assignments are in the process of making a lane.
Phil Loadholt is missing his block.
Johnson and Kalil have made a lane. Tulloch is tackling Harvin. Later, Devin Aromashodu blocks Dwight Bentley (also known as "Bill" Bentley) out of the play, Kalil pushes around Erik Coleman and the only player left unassigned is new safety Ricardo Silva, who had signed to the team just that day from the practice squad. I am 100 percent confident that if Loadholt held his block, Harvin would have had a touchdown. From this look, play and formation, I would expect a touchdown the majority of the time.
The announcers kept saying that Detroit was clued into the fact that there's not much the Vikings could do with a direct snap to Harvin, and I thought the same. Not so. Had they been a bit more aware, Vanden Bosch and Avril would both play contain (instead of just Avril), while Hill would have tried to maintain his gap assignment instead of pursue. There would have been a zone or corners playing press man instead of off and eight men in the box as well. Seeing none of this, the play went forward as planned.
Plays like this are often packaged with an easy "kill" call if the Vikings see Detroit selling out for the run. Likely, Ponder would have audibled to a passing play while Harvin ran a route out of the backfield, while Sullivan snapped at an angle. Gimmicky, but not as awful as I initially thought. Detroit lined itself up to get beat on that play. I've talked to a couple of people who break down plays, including the person at Pro Football Focus who broke this game down, and they all seem to agree that the play was much less ill-conceived than we may have initially thought. "Blazer," this was not.
Incidentally, he was much better in this game at run blocking, something you in Seattle might value. Here, the point is that Harvin is not only willing and able to execute any number of roles, but that he'll do it with abandon. This play would have likely been a gamechanger had one player held up his block, despite all of the complex blocking endemic to the play.
Of course, you may be concerned about Harvin running up the middle. That makes sense, given his injury history. How about putting Harvin in space away from the boundary? The Vikings loved that, and I think Bevell will do that too. In the Vikings' surprising victory over San Francisco, we saw that.
Week 2: Minnesota vs. San Francisco
It's a simple swing pass to Harvin, several yards behind the line of scrimmage, and it gets the job done. It starts with play-action to suck the linebackers in, with receivers running routes to clear out coverage.
I'll keep beating my Bill Musgrave drum. His playcalling has been superb through three games, and much of it has to do with an evolving gameplan. Musgrave and the other coordinators have not only adapted their gameplans to the weapons they have on the field, they have changed it according to current opponent and a season-long evolution. To demonstrate that concept, I'll do a short diagram of a play below, which is simply a swing pass to Percy Harvin.
First, I'll start with the play that helped set it up: a play action end around intended for Percy Harvin. The end around is a fairly common play for the Vikings, who used it quite well in 2011 for a few big gains, and deployed it at least once in 2012. Below are two snapshots of the Vikings deploying the end around against the Chiefs in Week 4 of the 2011 season.
Donovan McNabb is currently at the mesh point with Peterson and selling the run as Harvin runs behind the handoff for the play. McNabb then pitches it to Harvin who will attempt to outrun the player circled in red below.
The circling is there to indicate that in this game against a 3-4 system, the plan was to leave outside linebacker Tamba Hali unblocked in order to sell the run up the gut. That is, the left tackle would crash down to the defensive end so that the guard could move up and make a second level block. Hali actually does a great job not biting on the play action and waiting for the play to develop. Still, he can't prevent Harvin from breaking an 8-yard gain.
One of the keys to the play is that it starts on one hash mark, and Percy Harvin runs to the far hashes—a play design that gives Harvin room.
At this point, Hali is the only Chiefs player free and close enough to Harvin to make a play. Inside linebackers Derrick Johnson and Jovan Belcher are too far away from the play to make a difference.
The Vikings run a slightly different play against the 49ers. They block Aldon Smith to sell the pass off the play action (and keep him occupied), which might alert the 49ers to expect the pass and back the inside linebackers up. At this point, it looks like the Vikings have left two runners dead in the water and out of the play (until AP is presumably open later as the play action develops).
The play once again starts with Harvin lined up on the near hashes and pulling back and out as if reversing.
Carlos Rogers is trying to follow Harvin, but will naturally lag behind as he's attempting to read the play as well. Inside linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis are grouped pretty closely to the near hash, giving Harvin space as he moves to the open side of the field. This play is more effective against man coverage—something the 49ers do a lot—than against zone coverage. This is for no other reason than the fact that there would be a defender patrolling the flat or curl/hook zone that Ponder enters to begin his run.
As Ponder hitches forward, Bowman crashes upfield, then back into coverage while Willis stays still. Both of those decisions take them out of the play. It no longer looks like there will be a runner, because Ponder has turned away from Harvin. This keys Willis, who opened his hips in order to stop a reverse or end around, to stay inside. Tarrell Brown is also wary of a run by Harvin, but releases to cover Jenkins as Ponder turns away from Peterson and Harvin.
On this play, Harvin received the pass 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but there were no defenders near him.
It's only because Willis has excellent reaction time and good speed that he ends up making a tackle at all, but by then, Harvin already moved the chains for a first down.
There are a few reasons this play exemplifies what I've enjoyed from the playcalling group at the Vikings. The first is that it is a natural evolution of the plays that the Vikings are known to run, particularly the devastating reverses and end arounds that Harvin ran much of last year and a little bit this year. It takes advantage of a well-known tendency, and tweaks it enough so that anyone taking advantage of the tendency will get exploited (because movement will shift coverage enough for the quarterback to move to another receiver, probably the running back).
The second reason I liked the play design is because it also took advantage of the defense's scheme, which includes largely man coverage. This means that there is empty space on the swing pass given Rogers' natural lag on finding Harvin. Harvin knows where he's going to be, doesn't have to make any reads and runs at a good speed, all luxuries Rogers doesn't have. It looks like Harvin's taken out of the play at that point, because Ponder turns downfield.
Finally, the play was entirely consistent with the gameplan Minnesota was gunning for, which was designed to limit turnovers and find creative ways to put playmakers in space. This was also part of a strategy that combined a very heavy running load with play action passes designed to freeze the defense.
Seattle ran a very run-heavy offense (the heaviest run balance in the league at 55 percent), but didn't have the same capabilities they now have with Harvin. Getting a shifty back outside without any defenders near him is an offensive coordinator's dream.
Even when Adrian Peterson is on the field (and likely the same for Marshawn Lynch), defenses always had to keep track of Harvin. In fact, he's been used as a decoy often enough to open up the game... for himself.
Take a look at how they did that against the Redskins
Week 6: Minnesota vs. Washington
My favorite play was a zone stretch play action, with a pass to Percy Harvin, who crossed behind the line of scrimmage to take advantage of the defenders working to prevent the run to the outside. Once again, the Vikings gave the ball to Harvin in space, using the extra space given by the outside hash marks. Opponents would do well to pay attention to runs aimed towards the near hash marks—they often result in a play action to the "backside" of the play.
For some reason, these GIFs won't play on my computer unless I click on them. Enjoy.
Here the Vikings fake a sweep by motioning Harvin into a slotback role, then play action off of a zone stretch outside run for Peterson and Felton. The playside OLB crashes down on Peterson and misses Harvin getting open, who has no one covering him. The motion clogged the defense, the fake sweep took the defensive linemen out of their assignment, and the play action moved all the defensive playmakers. Harvin gets into space.
Obviously Harvin is multitalented. You've probably seen his highlight reel by now, which should include the following plays:
Specifically, a scouting report on Harvin would include the fact that he has some of the best short-area quickness in the NFL, extraordinary vision, both of the field and the ball in the air, patience to set up blocks, excellent hip wiggle, an ability to sink hips when necessary (in route and while in pursuit), very precise footwork in routes, efficient movement at the stem, the ability to set up defensive backs (he doesn't give his routes away with a shoulder lean, a look or his hips), burst in and out of cuts and surprising strength for his size.
With all of that comes the intuitive talent one needs to consistently beat defensive backs to the ball. Not only does he possess a wide variety of subtle moves in-route to create separation, he has a good nose for where to go where he needs to. Often asked to run unusual routes with the Vikings, Harvin would often run with precision despite being asked to play without traditional receiver landmarks; he would have to break before he reached seven yards (like in the route below):
The former Gator has a good sense of where the weaknesses of zones are and can sit in them if need be—a big part of the reason the Vikings were better against zone coverage than man coverage.
He has a number of weaknesses to his game as well. He will fight for the ball, but despite his strength won't win as often as he'll lose—without extending his arms completely, he limits his opportunities. He also has a somewhat smaller route tree than many top-tier receivers, although not by much. He needs more moves at the line of scrimmage on the release, although his strength and quickness serve him well.
His size limits his opportunities to be a jump-ball receiver, and despite the highlight above of catching a fade route, he can't really be asked to be the one who catches in the corner of the end zone. For some time, Musgrave (erroneously) kept him out of the red zone packages, and its true that he doesn't do as well in traffic as you would want. Despite a good vertical leap (37.5 inches), he just doesn't possess the capability to outmuscle and outleap defensive backs for the ball.
The bottom line is that there isn't a running back in the league who is better at running routes and playing the receiver, nor is there a receiver in the league who is better at running the ball. Not just an elite playmaker, Harvin is a unique talent. His talents don't just mean you have a running back and a receiver. The synergy of his talents creates rare opportunities that simply having a good running back or a good receiver don't provide.
Enjoy your gift, Field Gulls.