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Lunchbreak: Lining Up WRs in Backfield 'No Longer a Gimmick' Across NFL

Against the Steelers on Thursday Night Football, Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak lined up receiver Justin Jefferson in the backfield.

The strategy was utilizing Jefferson "as a decoy to create an advantage in the running game," noted Ted Nguyen of The Athletic.

Nguyen noted that lining receivers up in the backfield "used to be a gimmick that teams would sparingly employ in the NFL." He wrote:

You might see an offensive coordinator do it maybe 10-20 snaps a season to give defenses different looks, but they were usually a collection of disjointed plays that play callers hoped would confuse defenses. Last season, there was an uptick in snaps with this alignment, and teams have created effective packages with receivers in the backfield. It's become a legitimate component to some offenses this season.

There are a couple of reasons for this trend. Teams are starting to target receiving running backs more because some run-first linebackers don't have the athleticism to cover them. And when a receiver is in the backfield, defenses will usually adjust by putting a defensive back in the second level, but that's not an ideal choice because offenses could still run the ball and defensive backs just aren't used to fitting the run from inside that position. If they don't adjust and keep a linebacker in the box, offensive coordinators can take advantage of that mismatch in a variety of ways.

Nguyen broke down the Vikings play with Jefferson, which was utilized late in the first quarter on second-and-10.

Minnesota used 10 personnel (one running back and four receivers), and Pittsburgh responded with its dime package: six defensive backs and dime linebacker Marcus Allen, whom Nguyen noted is a converted safety.

Jefferson lined up in a split-back formation. He was offset to quarterback Kirk Cousins' left while running back Dalvin Cook was offset to his right. The Steelers had outside cornerback Cam Sutton line up in the box to match up with Jefferson. Although Sutton isn't used to being responsible for inside gaps, because of the alignment, he had the B-gap.

When Jefferson motioned outside of the box, Sutton followed him to the perimeter and left no one to play the B-gap. The Steelers weren't ready for this wrinkle and didn't have the proper adjustment to account for the gap after Sutton left the box.

The Vikings had inside-zone left called and attacked the vacated B-gap.

Even though the offense had five blockers for the five defenders in the box, the offensive line didn't account for Allen because he slid into the A-gap late. Still, Allen had too much space to cover and wasn't aggressive enough shooting the gap.

The result of the play? A 30-yard run by Cook.

The Vikings continued down the field, and Cousins connected with Jefferson for a 14-yard touchdown to take an early lead over the Steelers.

ESPN makes early NFL Draft predictions for Vikings

There are still four regular-season games – plus the postseason, of course – of the 2021 campaign, but is it ever too early to discuss the upcoming NFL Draft?

ESPN asked its beat reporters to project a first-round spot and targeted position for their respective teams.

For the Vikings, ESPN's Courtney Cronin predicted that Minnesota will pick 15th overall. She wrote:

Depending on how the rest of the season goes, Minnesota could be drafting in the top 15, which would be the team's highest pick since it selected cornerback Trae Waynes at No. 11 overall in 2015. Cornerback is once again a need for the Vikings, whose defensive retooling last offseason hasn't panned out the way the team expected.

A lot of Minnesota's offseason decisions hinge on quarterback Kirk Cousins' future and that of [Vikings Head Coach] Mike Zimmer and [General Manager] Rick Spielman, but finding a cornerback and an edge rusher help will be a priority to help rebuild the defense regardless of who else stays or goes.