What to expect from Kirk Cousins, Vikings' offense with Gary Kubiak calling plays

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gary Kubiak's return to playcalling comes under fairly ideal circumstances despite the challenges of a truncated offseason during a global pandemic.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off a season in which they ranked 10th in offensive efficiency running the scheme of Kubiak, who was an offensive advisor in 2019. He helped orchestrate a bounce-back season from quarterback Kirk Cousins, who finished with a 107.4 passer rating, the second-highest mark by a Vikings QB.

Now the offensive coordinator after the Cleveland Browns hired Kevin Stefanski as head coach, Kubiak doesn't have to deal with much turnover. Outside of the departures of wide receiver Stefon Diggs and right guard Josh Kline, much of the personnel on offense remains the same.

Minnesota is banking on Kubiak to take this group another step further by retaining his scheme, inheriting playcalling duties and giving the Vikings some needed stability at offensive coordinator.

Even with his experience, Kubiak has been getting reps to make sure he'll be up to speed after three seasons away from calling plays.

"I scripted throughout the whole offseason, just for me, for my discipline, making myself script and think every day because that's what I did for 20-some-odd years as a playcaller," Kubiak said. "Getting back in a rhythm, getting back talking to the quarterbacks every play. Coaching's no different than playing. You've got to get back in your routine. You need the practice time, so I need these six weeks just like anybody else."

Cousins is no stranger to the process of getting on the same page with an offensive coordinator -- he's had five in the past five seasons.

"It's more similar than different," Cousins said of his relationship with Kubiak now versus when he was offensive advisor in 2019. "He kind of still keeps that view from 30,000 feet where he's just observing. He'll speak into things when he has a thought, but at the same time he's letting [quarterbacks coach] Klint [Kubiak] and Rico [Dennison], our offensive-line coach, really also handle their territory as well.

"Gary is obviously the voice in meetings, where Kevin was that voice last year. So, I guess you're hearing his voice a lot more in meeting times. But on the practice field, you know really Klint is my first point of contact on a day-to-day basis and that's really felt more similar than different, which is probably a good thing to keep things as consistent as we can."

The challenges for Kubiak in helping Cousins, who won his first career playoff game last season, take the next step includes a wide receiver group lacking experience outside of Adam Thielen and the time to build on-field chemistry with their quarterback.

Yet the shortcomings of a receivers group in a soft rebuild isn't what Cousins sees as his biggest challenge.

"One of the focuses for me this season will be to, if we're not running the ball well and things aren't going well, to be able to make those plays that can get us right back into a game and win a game," Cousins said. "I think you saw it in the Denver game [a 27-23 comeback win in Week 11] -- we were down and able to get back in it and win.

"But being able to do that more and against a team like San Francisco. ... It's not an easy task, but those are the challenges when they eventually come up this season. It's a goal and something you're working toward to say, 'Hey, in those moments to try to find a way to dig deep and make enough plays to win.'"

Perhaps the Vikings' biggest advantage of continuity on offense will be that it allows them to be less predictable and more dangerous in how they attack defenses.

Minnesota's run-heavy focus yielded the sixth-best rushing attack in the NFL last season. The Vikings won't try to reinvent their offensive philosophy, but they won't stay stagnant, either.

"We don't necessarily try to recap and redo what we did last year," Kubiak said.

The Vikings might try to become less predictable with an improved run-pass balance.

Minnesota's designed-run percentage in the regular season was the second highest in the NFL (47%). The Vikings ranked first in the number of designed run plays when leading (58%), and called run plays 55% of the time on first and second downs with Stefanski as offensive coordinator.

The most recent time Kubiak called plays, as the head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2015-16, his team ran pass plays 54% of the time on first and second downs. It was more balanced during his one-year stint as the Ravens' offensive coordinator in 2014: Kubiak ran pass plays 51% of the time on first and second downs.

The plays the Vikings run out of various personnel groupings could mirror some of what worked well in 2019 while also being affected by the rebuilding of the receiver room.

The Vikings were last in the number of plays they ran out of 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end) in 2019, and ran the highest percentage of their plays (35%) out of 12 personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers, one running back).

Without a great deal of proven wide receiver depth, it's possible that regularly deploying three-receiver sets becomes an outlier again. Given Kubiak's history of utilizing tight ends in the passing game, it's possible there could be a spike in targets for Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. In 21 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach, Kubiak called passing plays in which a tight end was targeted 23% of the time.

"It's no secret that we lost a dynamic playmaker on offense in the pass game with the departure of Stefon, so you couple that with the talent that we have in the tight ends room and our history of putting not just two, but three tight ends on the field at the same time, I think that there's a great opportunity for us as a tight ends group to have an impact on this offense in the pass game," Rudolph said.