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NOTEBOOK: Shurmur Keeping Defenses Guessing with Various Personnel Groupings

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings trailed by a point late in the third quarter when they used some deception to grab the lead for good against the Browns in a Week 8 matchup in London.

Minnesota lined up in its goal-line formation, with tight ends Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan on the right side of the line and Blake Bell on the left. Running back Jerick McKinnon stood behind fullback C.J. Ham was in the backfield.

But the shift was soon on, as Rudolph moved out wide to the right, Morgan shifted to the left side of the line and McKinnon moved into the slot next to Rudolph. 

The running back then went in motion behind the line, taking a quick handoff from Case Keenum and following blocks from Ham, Morgan and Bell to scamper into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown.

"Anything we can do to get the defense's eyes elsewhere or get them thinking something different, that's good," Morgan said. "Our offensive staff does a great job of that, just putting different players in different spots to do the things we're good at.

"It's cool to see how our offensive-minded coaches work and what they can come up with, trying different guys in different spots," Morgan added.

Two weeks later, on a field more than 3,600 miles away from London's Twickenham Stadium, the Vikings appeared to run the same play again, this time against the Washington Redskins.

Once again, Minnesota lined up in the goal-line formation. Rudolph again went out wide right, and McKinnon moved into the slot.

But this time, Morgan faked going to the left side and slid back to his original spot while Ham was the one who motioned over to the left side as a would-be blocker.

Washington linebacker Will Compton immediately pointed at McKinnon and followed him as the running back once again went in motion from right to left behind the offensive line.

Keenum, however, faked the handoff to McKinnon and rolled to his right before finding Morgan all alone for a 1-yard touchdown pass, the first of the tight end's career.

Compton, meanwhile, had raced more than 10 yards trying to track McKinnon.

The sequence of plays illustrates the creative mind of Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur, who has added a wrinkle here and a diversion there to help make the Vikings one of the top offenses in the NFL. Minnesota currently ranks fifth in yards per game (375.7) and is eighth in points per game (24.6).

"The thing I liked about it, we've done a lot of different things out of the same looks," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "You take the play on the goal line when we were in London, and they handed the ball to Jerick when we were on the goal line.

"The next week we have a boot off of the exact same look," Zimmer added. "We're starting to do a lot of things off of the same look that defenses prepare for that look and they get something else."

Added Morgan: "We knew they had to honor (the run by McKinnon). We got them running and knew it was one of those things where it'd pop right wide open."

Besides throwing various looks at opposing defenses, Shurmur also hasn't been afraid to call any play with any formation.

If there are multiple tight ends on the field, for example, defenses might suspect a run. But Shurmur has shown he isn't afraid to pass.

The different personnel groupings has become a calling card of sorts for Shurmur's offense in Minnesota. 

"Two things, number one, we want to use the whole roster," Shurmur said Thursday. "Everybody that is active on offense, we want to get them involved. So, we try to get everybody involved.

"Secondly, to be able to change the groupings, go from 11 to 12 to 13 to 22 [personnel] and then run similar run plays. Then obviously, the play-actions and the dropbacks off of it," Shurmur added. "You're always trying to fool the defense to some degree. Being able to do that helps you."

Said Ham: "Coach Shurmur does a great job of making sure everybody is a part of this thing. Whatever we do, he's using somebody in some way, and we're all playing off each other and all playing great."

Ham is in his first season as the Vikings fullback after switching from running back. He's helped Minnesota rank sixth in rushing at 124.5 yards per game just one year after the Vikings were dead last in rushing yards per game (75.2).

But just because Ham is on the field doesn't mean the Vikings are going to run.

"Nowadays, when you have two backs on the field, it's primarily a run down, a run formation, so they bring in their base packages, their big linebackers and stuff like that, so it really just opens up the middle of the field and the sidelines for deep passes," Ham said.

Shurmur and his offensive staff's creativity has helped the Vikings to a 9-2 record and a three-game lead in the NFC North with five regular-season games remaining. 

There could be more tricks up his sleeve down the road.

"There's a lot of different things that we do. Not to be too specific, but there's numerous plays where we put a little wrinkle on this, do a motion here, don't do a motion here, line up a guy in a different spot and then do a different guy in motion," Morgan said. "It's not only us, people across the league do that because it's a copycat profession.

"You do something so much that defenses are going to start catching on," Morgan said. "We just have to keep doing a good job of mixing things up."

Recognizing Keenum 

Keenum, who on Thursday morning was awarded NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, has prospered in the offensive system.

Keenum said the Vikings offense has benefited from "good game-planning."

"I think Pat's done a great job, and we have a lot of guys, everybody in that offensive room, we're all on the same page," Keenum said. "So whatever play we're running in whatever personnel we're running, I think everybody's got a great grasp on it and are prepared by their coaches to be ready to go."

The success has led to accolades an attention. In addition to Keenum becoming the first Vikings QB to win a Player of the Month award since Brett Favre in 2009, Adam Thielen is leading NFC receivers in Pro Bowl votes.

Thielen also participated in an interview with Vikings Ring of Honor receiver and Thielen's childhood hero, Randy Moss. The feature will air on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown.

Keenum, Thielen and the Vikings are staying grounded and focused, shrugging off attention from the outside. Thielen, however, did admit that teammates recognized Keenum with "a little applause" during a team meeting on Thursday.

"We're excited for him, obviously," Thielen said. "He's been playing at a high level, playing with a lot of confidence, and he's been a great leader for us. He demands the huddle, he has excitement every day in practice. He kind of gets us going every day, so we have a lot of faith and trust in him to lead us, and we're just going to continue to ride off him."

View practice images from Thursday, November 30th at Winter Park.

Injury reports

For the Vikings: Mike Remmers (low back) did not participate. Eric Kendricks (hip) and Joe Berger (not injury related) were limited. Andrew Sendejo (groin) was a full participant.

For the Falcons: Matt Bryant (back), Brian Poole (back) and Desmond Trufant (concussion) did not participate for a second straight day. Sean Weatherspoon (illness) also did not participate Thursday. Terron Ward (shoulder/knee), Ty Sambrailo (hamstring), Andy Levitre (knee), Julio Jones (ankle) and Justin Hardy (shoulder) were limited. Devonta Freeman (concussion) fully participated.

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