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Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Fans might have noticed a flurry of pre-snap movement in the Minnesota Vikings opener last Sunday, including on three of their four touchdowns.
On two of them — both of Dalvin Cook’s touchdowns — receiver Adam Thielen carried out a jet motion, sprinting behind the quarterback from one side of the formation to the other. It’s this type of pre-snap diversion that the Vikings used frequently in 2018 and have shown a proclivity to use in the early stages of the 2019 campaign.
So what’s the secret, Mr. Thielen?
“They just tell me what to do and I do it,” Thielen said coyly with a laugh.
OK, so maybe the Vikings won’t give away all the secrets, but ask around and you’ll get some deeper insights into the logic behind jet motion and pre-snap activity in general.
Jet motion, which typically puts skill players in a full sprint at the time of the snap, is no longer a gimmick. Over the past three seasons, it has become a common staple of NFL playbooks, beginning in large measure when Sean McVay took over the Los Angeles Rams and employed current Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur as his offensive coordinator. The Rams were trail blazers in 2017 as they took the jet motion gadget and made it a meaningful part of their scheme, using it on over 8 percent of snaps at one point during season.
“I think it’s just all the misdirection,” LaFleur said on a conference call with Twin Cities reporters. “There’s a lot of moving parts with that when you’ve got guys flying across the formation. That’s really a credit to Sean and his vision that he brought with that, that he really brought that to life. It’s been a pretty cool deal to watch it grow after the last couple years, though.”
It’s a copy-cat league, they say, so naturally jet sweeps nearly doubled in usage from 2017 to 2018 after the NFL saw L.A.’s success. The Rams, though, stayed ahead of the curve as leaders in jet sweeps and averaged 6.8 yards per attempt on those plays, according to Pro Football Focus, as they reached the Super Bowl last season. In this context, jet sweeps (where the moving player gets the ball) are differentiated from jet motion, which is merely the action of a player moving across the formation.
The Vikings were quick to pick up on the jet sweep, using it 11 times last season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
It appears the Vikings will be using that concept plentifully in 2019 if the preseason and Week 1 games are any indication. Resident Zone Coverage podcaster and The Athletic beat writer Arif Hasan adroitly noticed this trend in Vikings practices and dug into offensive advisor Gary Kubiak’s history of using the play. While none of the receivers got a carry last week, it could be coming soon.
At minimum, presenting the threat of a jet sweep can have benefits too.
Vikings backup quarterback Sean Mannion played under LaFleur and McVay in 2017 with the Rams and got to see the jet sweep evolution in progress. As McVay has gone on record saying, the jet concept (or as LaFleur called it, “ghost”) is a test for defenses’ gap integrity and run fits.
“Having a guy moving full speed down the line of scrimmage gets a lot of horizontal stretch on run lanes and on guys just having to bump across with the motion,” Mannion told Zone Coverage, “so I think it’s all about the timing of it, if you’re a good team that does a good job of timing it up and then having multiple different actions off of it: having a run game, a play-action, maybe just using the quick [pass] game to outflank a guy.
“At it’s core, it’s having a guy running full speed right at the snap and having a good mesh with the quarterback, running back and just the timing of the snap is really what stresses the defense, I think.”
The Vikings used pre-snap motion of all kinds 41.4 percent of the time last year, per PFF, the 15th-highest rate in the NFL. Much to head coach Mike Zimmer’s dismay, the Vikings relied heavily on the pass in 2018, but Sunday’s win over Atlanta demonstrated the positives of pre-snap motion in the running game. Cook’s second touchdown was a prime example as Thielen reached the edge at full speed and used that momentum to put a stifling block on Atlanta’s Isaiah Oliver, allowing Cook a clear path to the end zone. The Vikings had multiple other explosive carries where pre-snap motion took linebackers and defensive backs further from the flow of the play.
Zimmer, Diggs and quarterback Kirk Cousins all referenced the eyes of the defense when speaking about jet motion.
“Eye violations are probably the big thing,” Zimmer said. “You get guys moving from one gap to another gap, you get them worried about coverage.”
“They have to see where you line up,” said Cousins, “if you change your strength or change your motion that changes their rules, who has what gap, who’s blitzing, who’s going to the other side of the play with that motion and who’s going to stay and shift over. They have to work through all those motions, and any time you can unsettle a defense with those motions I think it can help. The key is you do a variety of things. So when they see that, they’re unsettled as to what’s coming now, and what do we have to focus on and defend, and where should their eyes be.”
Diggs scored a touchdown in Week 2 last season against Green Bay out of jet motion, where his pre-snap motion essentially became the start of his flat route, which took him toward the front left pylon for an easy score.
“I know just from being on the offensive side, kind of giving them some window dressing and wrinkles and that kind of thing,” Diggs said. “It’s like any other offense. Everybody does kind of the same stuff as far as trying to window dress and trying to give you different looks and getting guys’ eyes and just playing fast.”
It’s no surprise that Zimmer, the veteran coach who’s seen many myriad offensive wrinkles over the years, considers jet motion to be an offensive fad in the same category as the Wildcat formation — just another trend that requires some savvy defensive adjustments before it gets altered or phased out.
But with LaFleur now running the show with the Packers, Zimmer’s defense may have to be prepared for any jet motion tricks as soon as Sunday. Meanwhile, the Vikings offense will continue trying to exploit it to its advantage.
“Something’s en vogue and then defenses figure it out, and then defenses do something and then offenses figure it out,” Zimmer said. “It’s always the same cat and mouse game every year.”