EAGAN, Minn. — Toward the end of the Vikings’ 21-7 loss in Seattle last Dec. 10, sideline microphones picked up an exasperated expletive from Adam Thielen, as the wide receiver’s frustrations with an offense stuck in neutral reached their breaking point.
Fifty-one weeks later, as Thielen is expected to make his return from a right hamstring injury for another Monday night game in Seattle, he’ll return to an offense that’s ranked eighth in the league this season and has diversified itself in his absence.
“We’ve relied on some different personnel groupings; I think we’ve asked a little bit more of an Irv Smith, a Tyler Conklin, even our running backs being receivers,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “They’ve really answered the call and shown what they can do. You like to think it gives you more versatility and more experience to lean on if we have Adam back, knowing there are a few others who are (more) battle-tested than they otherwise would have been.”
Thielen didn’t practice on Wednesday, but went through an extensive pregame warmup before the Vikings’ Nov. 17 win over the Broncos. The Vikings cut Josh Doctson on Tuesday because “we felt like we were in good shape at receiver,” coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. The team had not cleaned out Doctson’s locker as of Wednesday (indicating he could be re-signed at some point), but his release would suggest the Vikings are optimistic about having Thielen on Monday night in Seattle. Quarterback Cousins went so far as to say on his radio show last week that Thielen will play in Seattle.
While he was healthy for all of the Vikings’ first six games, Thielen was tied for second in the league with five receiving touchdowns. Cousins had a 138.8 passer rating on throws to Thielen in those games, according to Sharp Football Stats.
But early in the year, the passing game leaned heavily on Thielen, Diggs and screens to Dalvin Cook. Those three players accounted for 98 of Cousins’ 143 targets in those games, with no other player posting more than 10 catches in that time.
After Thielen injured his hamstring on his 25-yard touchdown pass from Cousins in Detroit, though, the Vikings were forced to adapt.
They’ve still worked prominently through Diggs (who is on pace to be just the third player this century to catch 60 passes while averaging more than 19 yards a reception) and Cook, but they’ve turned to other options in that time. Smith has 20 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown, while fellow rookie Bisi Johnson has 15 catches for 131 yards (including two TDs). They’ve also rediscovered tight end Kyle Rudolph, who’s got five touchdowns — and leads the team with seven red zone targets — in the Vikings’ last five games.
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In the first seven weeks, as they built game plans with Thielen healthy, the Vikings had three personnel packages they used almost equally. They went to “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) for 108 snaps, used “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) for 113 and “21” personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers) for 114, according to Sharp Football.
Since then, they’ve coalesced around their tight ends, using “12” personnel for 115 snaps — more than all but the Steelers in the past four games — and turning to “13” personnel for another 32. They’ve had three receivers on the field for just 34 snaps in the past four games; no other team has used three-receiver sets less than 62 snaps in that time.
“I think it says a lot about our coaches, too,” Cousins said. “I think that’s a great job by them to say, ‘Hey, we’re missing so-and-so; how do we still move the football? How do we get players in a position to be successful?’ I think coaches have done a good job with that, and Monday night will be no different, whether we have Adam or not.”
If Thielen is healthy and ready to go, he’d combine with Diggs to attract plenty of attention from a Seahawks defense that’s well aware of the challenge it would face.
“He’s a great player,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He was probably their target leader until he went out, and Stefon has caught up to him a little bit. He’s a great player — he’s a go-to guy who makes things happen. He just makes them better.”
That’d be especially true if the tools the Vikings used to compensate for Thielen’s absence can now be used to complement him.
“We’ve got some young guys that can play; we’ve got some older guys that can play,” Diggs said. “Kyle’s always been consistent, as far as pass catching and blocking. ‘Conk’ had a big third down (against the Broncos), and he hadn’t caught a pass all year. It’s just a lot of guys stepping up, everybody doing their job. And it’s good to have that, because you’re going to need it around this stretch of December.”