Coming off of an extremely underwhelming 26-9 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, questions about Case Keenum‘s abilities grew seemingly louder. Unexpectedly inserted into the starting spot ahead of the team’s Week 2 contest, the fifth year signal-caller performed poorly, as many predicted.
Finishing the game 20-of-37 with 167 passing yards, Keenum’s first outing as the Vikings’ starter inspired little confidence, creating more uncertainty than answers. Should the franchise sign another quarterback to save their season, or, could newly signed, undrafted free agent Kyle Sloter potentially be the solution?
After making a surprise visit to see Dr. James Andrews, Sam Bradford was quickly ruled out of Minnesota’s Week 3 contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were seen by many before the season as an NFC sleeper team.
Despite all of the outlandish comments and remarks made about the Vikings QB situation, Keenum quickly quieted the critics, capping off his best performance as a professional and leading his team to a dominating 34-17 victory.
Finishing 25-of-33, with 369 yards and three touchdowns, Keenum instilled confidence in the fanbase and to many critics, suggesting he could confidently hold down the fort in Bradford’s absence.
Lets take a look at how offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur put Keenum in positions to succeed against the Buccaneers defense.
It is no secret that with Bradford out, the Vikings were going to rely heavily on rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Coming into Week 3, Cook was second in the league in rushing yards (191). On the third play of the opening drive, after back-to-back Cook runs gave the Vikings a first down, it would’ve been safe to assume another handoff was coming.
Shurmur took advantage of this notion, turning Tampa Bay’s aggressiveness against them.
Using 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, and two receivers), which is primarily a heavy run set, Shurmur flipped the switch and allowed Keenum to throw the ball down the field.
The risk resulted in a 45-yard completion to Adam Thielen. The Buccaneers showed a seven-man box, but eventually rolled down a deep safety in run support to make it an eight-man front. Shurmur anticipated the shift and knew he was going to get man-to-man coverage against his two receivers on the outside.
Taking these shots down the field did wonders for Keenum’s confidence. It also showed that he was capable of completing deep throws, limiting the amount of man coverage that the Tampa Bay secondary could and wanted to play.
As the game progressed, that game plan quickly vanished. The Buccaneers began to send blitzes from both directions, hoping to force Keenum to make errant throws similar to the ones he displayed a week ago in Pittsburgh.
With such a mix up in their coverages and game plan, Shurmur unveiled a fantastic adjustment.
He began to give Keenum two plays in one; meaning that in the huddle, for passes, he gave his quarterback a play that could beat zone coverage and another that could beat man-to-man coverage.
Looking at the defensive structure below, Tampa Bay is bringing a blitz off the edge with their nickel corner, which is the defender Thielien points directly at pre-snap. Keenum sees that the safety that is stacked over the top of impending blitzer is now the defender responsible for covering Thielen man-to-man.
Keenum now has the option to kill the play.
Many times on live broadcasts, you notice that quarterbacks repeatedly yell “kill, kill, kill”. This is what Keenum does here and signals it with both of his hands by performing a throat slash.
Killing the play eliminates the first option of the original combo that Shurmur sent into the huddle. The second option of the play was a concept designed to defeat man-to-man coverage; a 5-yard in route by the outermost receiver (top of the screen) and a corner route by the slot receiver.
It’s an easy read for Keenum, as he understands he’s matched up against man coverage. All he has to do is read the cornerback that is guarding the outer most receiver at the top of the screen. If the cornerback runs with the 5-yard in-route, then he knows that no one is over top of the corner route. If the cornerback decides to not chase the in-route and backpedal towards the corner route, that means that the in-route will be open.
Keenum’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs right before halftime was the same exact concept. Throughout the game, you consistently saw the same concepts, mainly because Shurmur called plays that Keenum was most comfortable reading and executing.
One of the easiest ways to help an inexperienced QB or one that hasn’t been in your system a significant amount of time is to change the launch point. Changing the launch point simply means changing the area from where the ball is thrown, like moving the pocket with bootleg or roll out passes.
On the two-yard line, most defenses play man-to-man coverage because it prevents confusion and every defender is strictly assigned to a player. Anticipating this, Shurmur changed the launch point to help Keenum and called a set of rub routes, which are typically man-coverage beaters.
Rub routes makes it difficult for certain players to stick to their coverage because there is so much trash (other receivers) they have to get through in order to prevent their assignment from catching the ball.
In 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) below, Shurmur runs a rub route with the no. 1 receiver (Thielen) and the no. 3 receiver (Jairus Wright). Shurmur strategically used Thielen as the receiver to set the pick and ran Wright to the sideline, making it extremely difficult for his defender to run through Thielen while still being able to guard him.
The defender guarding Wright gets caught in the trash and is unable to contain Wright as he scores the easy touchdown.
It was clear that the game plan was to let Case Keenum throw it early and often. The result was surprising given his performance against the Steelers a week ago, but his career high day showed that Keenum is a potential option to bridge the gap until Bradford’s return.
Pat Shumur called an outstanding game and consistently put his quarterback in positions to succeed. Knowing that Keenum was entrenched as his starter, Shurmur condensed his playbook in half and only carried half of the plays as he normally does.
Doing so paid dividends, as Shurmur’s offense now possesses the leagues third-best passing attack and is currently the second-best overall.
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