Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features

MelvinRas14.jpg

» Four Downs: AFC South

The Jaguars and Titans both won playoff games last year. Are the days of this division being the NFL's laughingstock over? Maybe not -- all four clubs failed to address critical weaknesses in the draft.

18 Jan 2018

Film Room: Case Keenum

by Derrik Klassen

Quarterbacks are still as important as ever. A historically bad year for injuries to top quarterbacks opened the door for Case Keenum, Nick Foles, and Blake Bortles to reach conference championship games, but one anomalous season does not permanently change the league, as The Ringer's Kevin Clark expanded on earlier this week.

However, the success of the Minnesota Vikings offense, in particular, begs the question: can the quarterback be a complementary piece rather than the anchor of an NFL offense?

Case Keenum, a career backup and spot starter since entering the league in 2012, ascended into the MVP conversation after taking over for an injured Sam Bradford in Week 2. Only a year removed from a disastrous stint with the Los Angeles Rams, Keenum finished the 2017 regular season with a league-high 28.2% DVOA. He had other great stats as well, finishing ninth with 7.03 adjusted net yards per attempt and fourth with a 1.46 percent interception rate. By many statistical measures, Keenum was a superb quarterback, but the film did not always show him to be the core of Minnesota's offense.

The lifeblood of Minnesota's passing offense are the wide receivers. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs caught fire this season, propelling themselves to be arguably the best one-two wide receiver combo in the league. Both are former NFL draft afterthoughts -- Thielen an undrafted free agent in 2013, Diggs a fifth-rounder in 2015 -- but each has proven to be as good as any receiver in the league. When asked about the receiver duo, Arif Hasan of Zone Coverage lauded them for their ability to erase accuracy issues. "[Diggs and Thielen] win contested catches at a very high rate, and have large catch radii despite their frames -- both for low passes and high passes," Hasan told me. "They both demonstrate excellent ball tracking skills and can create extra space with physicality at the stem."

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

     

Keenum took advantage of his afforded leniency on a deep pass to Thielen versus the Saints. After cycling through his progressions, Keenum became uneasy in the pocket, as he sometime does late in downs. Keenum felt pressure that was not necessarily there and backpedaled himself into pressure that was there. Without regaining a solid throwing base, Keenum heaved a pass up to Thielen toward the right boundary. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore committed defensive holding and defensive pass interference penalties on Thielen on their way to the ball, but that did not stop Thielen from his ultimate goal. Thielen leaped backward with Lattimore draped over him and pulled the ball in on his way down. It would be foolish to say that catch is expected of any receiver, but it is no longer shocking when Thielen makes a play like that. It has become regular for Thielen.

What is more fascinating about Thielen is how aware he is of his surroundings and how a play ought to function. Thielen can make slight adjustments in his routes or before the catch point to give Keenum a wider window to fit the ball into. Furthermore, Thielen is a quarterback's ideal scramble-drill partner. He is a perfect fit for Keenum, a former Air Raid quarterback who is fairly athletic. Scrambling and/or on-the-fly route adjustments are right in Keenum's element.

This is a play-action pass designed to look like a split-zone run. Thielen (bottom) runs a deep crosser over the middle to clear space for a back-side wheel route run by a tight end crossing tight to the formation. The idea is that the linebackers will come up to play the run and lose the tight end in the shuffle, opening up the wheel route over the top. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kyle Shanahan's Atlanta Falcons offense have had success with this concept.

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

As is often the case in football, the play does not go according to plan. Dennis Allen's Saints defense was prepared for the play and picked up the tight end with ease. Keenum was forced to turn back to the only other non-checkdown route available: Thielen on the deep crosser. Thielen, realizing it is late in the down and a defender is playing his outside shoulder, works back toward the line of scrimmage. Neither defender near Thielen could redirect in time, allowing Keenum to find Thielen in a comfortable pocket in between the coverage. That is heads-up wide receiver play.

Diggs is capable of the same thing. Of course, Diggs' miraculous walk-off touchdown reception is what sticks out from his performance in the division round, but the Maryland product terrorized the Saints all night long, including on a scramble drill in the end zone.

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

     

To have mapped this play out like the last one would have been useless. In the Thielen example, the play was still fairly intact; Thielen just made an excellent adjustment to his route. This, however, is pure chaos, but Keenum and Diggs still found a way to connect. Well after his initial route had been ran, Diggs shimmied through and around defenders to create a viable window for Keenum to throw to. It was not an easy throw for Keenum to make, but not many other receivers outside of Minnesota have the savvy to get open like Diggs did.

Working with two outstanding, versatile wide receivers has made Keenum's job infinitely easier. Keenum could not ask for two pass-catchers who better suit his skill set, a sentiment Hasan cosigned when asked about Diggs and Thielen. That being said, a problem arises when teams do the obvious and double-cover one or both of Minnesota's elite receivers. It is not something defenses can get away with on every play because the offensive coordinator and quarterback can adjust, but in critical situations, it can be a crushing defensive call for an ill-equipped quarterback.

The Saints went to a Cover-0 coverage (no deep safeties) on this third-and-4 situation. Rather than blitz out of the no-deep safety look, Allen used an extra defender to cover each of Diggs and Thielen (in yellow). Keenum did not respond well to clamps being put on his best options.

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Keenum first opened the play looking to his left for Diggs. Right before the snap, the cornerback over Diggs backed off from a press alignment to a deep cushion. Keenum stuck to a rigid plan and hoped Diggs could get open anyway. When he finally accepted that Diggs was not the right option, Keenum moved back to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who ran a short hook over the middle of the field. Keenum pulled the ball up to throw to Rudolph, but was either spooked by the incoming pressure or was not comfortable with the throwing window, and he pulled the ball down to take a sack.

In fairness to Keenum, it was a well-designed defensive call and a tough play for the quarterback to make. However, Keenum is not a quarterback to regularly dazzle with keen pre-snap foresight and post-snap sharpness. Keenum is very much a loose player, winning primarily with mobility, the willingness to force the ball to elite playmakers, and a good deal of interception luck.

As a quarterback, Keenum is plenty capable of winning the Super Bowl. Less capable quarterbacks have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in the past, as recently as the corpse of Peyton Manning in 2015. The greater takeaway, however, is that Minnesota's offense is not reliant on Keenum being fantastic, but rather him doing enough to enable Diggs and Thielen as game-changers. When coupled with a suffocating defense, there is no denying Minnesota has found a clear avenue for success this season.

How much the Vikings' approach and success (as well as that of the Jaguars) changes the league, we do not yet know. 2017 may have simply been an oddball year, or could be the catalyst for a league-wide revolution in how to build a winning team. Regardless, the meteoric rise of Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings offense is a fascinating case study in how to -- at least for the moment -- win without an established franchise quarterback.

Posted by: Derrik Klassen on 18 Jan 2018

23 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2018, 4:03pm by GrandVezir

Comments

1
by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/18/2018 - 3:04pm

I think the Eagles win because the current condition of the Vikings o-line does not match up well with the Eagles defensive front, especially in Philly, so Keenum will face too many pressures on 3rd and longs, resulting in ints. The question I have is what it would take for Zimmer to pull Keenum and put Bradford on the field

4
by andrew :: Thu, 01/18/2018 - 3:57pm

There is no question Bradford has a better arm, and what we saw from him week one was incredible.

That being said, the offensive line is a bit shakier than it was then, especially with Easton out. I don't know if Bradford could flourish as well vs this defense with a suspect line. We already saw that movie, in part, lasst year, albeit with a much worse line. Keenum's mobility and sack avoidance has served him well... I'm guessing at this point they know something about Teddy...

I think Easton's injury also really hurts the run game, which was key for Keenum's play action success. We were persistent at running vs the Saints, helped by a lead most of the game, but even so it was never very productive. The Eagles defense is better than the Saints.

As for what it would take to put Bradford in? Its hard to imagine a scenario short of injury or lost cause.

12
by bravehoptoad :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 12:49pm

After what Bradford managed with last year's truly crapola line, I'm imagining he could do pretty well with this year's.

7
by James-London :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 6:33am

The O-line's a potential problem. In that last GIF, the right side of the line gets whipped (Saints coverage looks pretty good as well), and Keenum's got nothing to do but eat the ball.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

11
by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 11:07am

It just seems to me to be a game where the defenses have the upper hand decidedly, and the offensive live which has to deal with a hostile crowd is going to get in trouble. Two months ago I would have given them a much better chance, but in their current condition, not so much.

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/18/2018 - 3:28pm

"However, the success of the Minnesota Vikings offense, in particular, begs the question: can the quarterback be a complementary piece rather than the anchor of an NFL offense?"

That's not what "begs the question" means. Begging the question is when you support a claim with a premise that assumes the claim is true.
it attempts to pass (C => P) => C as the valid claim P => C.

You wanted "it raises the question".

3
by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 01/18/2018 - 3:56pm

Heh, I was just about to type the same thing. Particularly on an analytics site, you don't want to be begging any questions.

P.S. But that's such a tiny thing compared to the content of the article. I haven't watched the Vikings play this year, so I learned a lot.

13
by Pat :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 1:35pm

The problem with being pedantic about this, really, is that if he had said "begs for the question:" - that's perfectly fine, and in colloquial speech dropping the preposition is common (though not grammatically correct). The only problem with it is that it's similar to the logical fallacy construct "beg the question", which is totally different. Except that construct came about because someone couldn't translate Latin - it should be "beg the premise," not "beg the question."

So this is the odd situation where he's actually semantically correct. It *does* beg for the question to be asked. It's the technical term that's semantically wrong, but the technical term is entrenched, so using the semantically correct phrase invites people to say you're wrong.

Short version: "beg the question" as a logical fallacy is a screwed-up Latin translation, and it doesn't make sense to describe what the fallacy says. The writer's only problem was dropping "for."

16
by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 2:57pm

Hey, Pat, how you see this game at the Linc? I favor your Iggles by 2-3 points, I guess.

19
by Pat :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 5:21pm

What is this, Battle of the Teams with Realistic Fans? I mean, I'm expecting the Vikings to beat the Eagles by at least two scores, although on the lower side of that. And I wouldn't take a bet on Vikings -7 because I could also easily see the Eagles pulling within a score very late and needing an onsides kick (as in the Jaguars-Steelers game) because Shurmur's super-conservative.

I'm guessing you saw the Atlanta-Philly game, right? The only reason Philly didn't lose is because an Atlanta receiver slipped and fell to the ground on that final play. And that play kinda summed up Philly's defense in a lot of ways - secondary is okay, but looks way better than it actually is because the pass rush is elite.

And that's a problem against Minnesota, even though their offensive line isn't exactly great: because Keenum's got release valves in Diggs and Thielen. If I was coaching Minnesota, I'd be having Keenum practice expecting pressure and knowing when to tuck the ball and when to go for Diggs/Thielen. If the Eagles can get turnovers off Keenum, they've got a shot. If they can't, they're not going to win a field-position game. Eventually he'll hit Diggs/Thielen.

If someone forced me to make a prediction I'd probably say like, 14-10 Vikings with the Eagles touchdown coming very late in the game (so realistically it'd be 14-3 most of the second half). But I'll start feeling a lot better if I see Philly force a sack-fumble in the first half.

That being said, I'm going to be a complete fatalist unless Jacksonville pulls off a miracle, because I don't see either of these teams having a prayer against New England.

22
by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/20/2018 - 11:03am

I just don't think the Vikings o-line is going to hold up, at all. If they were given the same opportunity that the Falcons had with Jones, on the last snap, except with Thielen or Diggs, they would be smart to take up the offer.

14
by ChrisS :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 2:32pm

99% of the time that people use this phrase they use it incorrectly. It is, as you say, actually a pretty obscure debate phrase. But through (mis)use it will probably be completely corrupted such that the mis-use will become the standard definition. Another phrase that gets mis-used a ton is "the proof is in the pudding" which does not make a lick of sense. The correct phrase is "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" which is a great metaphor for I don't care what it looks like, I only care if it tastes good. But I guess Americans don't eat ugly puddings like the Brits do.

15
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 2:47pm

As a former collegiate competitive debater (many moons ago) and a long time coach/judge this phrase has been so corrupted that the wrong definition has become the common definition (or at least seems so). I write that as someone who has repeatedly scribbled in the judge's form on the improper usage and in the last ten years in that role to be told by other coaches to 'back off already'

20
by Pat :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 5:44pm

That's because the 'wrong' definition makes more sense than the 'right' one. The way it's being used here is the way it *should* be used. "Raise the question" doesn't convey the eagerness that "begging for the question" does - "raise the question" is like, nice, polite, and formal, whereas "begging for the question" is saying that obviously, the next question you would ask should be this.

But, of course, you can't use "begs for the question" because of a series of garbage "whisper down the line"-like translations that ended with a linguist saying 'OK, "begging the the question" is a piss-poor way to say "assuming the conclusion"'.

So I'll stand with your unnamed judge, and agree with the popular revolt: give us back our beg the question! Back to the pit from whence you came, catchphrase logicians! Save your fights for the real tragedies, like "could care less"!

21
by ChrisS :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 6:22pm

The wrong definition might seem more reasonable and that is probably why this phrase stayed obscure (where it belongs) until someone started misusing it because they thought it made them seem "smarter". There is nothing wrong with "raises the question" but arguing with common usage is a losing battle. For "could care less" isn't "than anybody else" omitted as being understood?

23
by GrandVezir :: Sat, 01/20/2018 - 4:03pm

In context, "could care less" is best understood infused with a heavy dose of sarcasm -- e.g. "I could care less. Really. Somehow. It must be possible, right?"

5
by FireSnake :: Thu, 01/18/2018 - 5:39pm

How impressive is Michael Floyd making the third consecutive Championship game on his third team? Does this happen often?

6
by Willsy :: Thu, 01/18/2018 - 11:31pm

True that is a great stat, good for him.

The analysis is terrific. Having watched every game this year there are a few things that seem to have emerged.

1. The system i.e. Shumer, WRs, expectations have been built around Keenum.
2. As said they has worked on his strength not weaknesses.
3. Bradford said he has watched hours of Keenum's tape from Houston and said a) he couldn't understand why he wasn't drafted and b) why Bradford went at 1 in comparison.
4. Fisher is the luckiest ex HC in terms of tenure alive.
5. When he steps forward in the pocket he does really well and apparently they harp on this continually.
6. His passing percentage moving out of the pocket is very good and this article does a great job explaining why.

The talk from the Minn press is that they have tried to reign in his worse parts pretty well and that the coaching staff have been happy with his engagement to do this.

The longer term question is if Shumer takes him to NYC with him?

Since I am still trying to recover from last weeks stress levels not sure how I will go this week versus Philly. The last game was such a Greek drama, like all Vikings losses, until Diggs moved the production into more of a Vaudeville style.

8
by RobotBoy :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 7:17am

I'm not experienced with film so no surprise that the breakdown of the last GIF confused me. According to the analysis, with the receivers double covered, Keenum is left in a situation challenging to a QB with his particular limitations.
Except, is there really double coverage on No. 19? The safety is so far back and gives so much of a cushion, that there's no way he could have reacted in time to shut down the quick out, which 19 seemed to be running. Yeah, the receiver on the outside didn't draw the safety with him but that wouldn't have stopped the inside receiver from picking up positive yardage if Keenum had thrown to a spot anticipating the break. Brady has made his ducats throwing those routes. All the safety could have done was get over in time to stop the receiver from making a big gain if he beat the corner.

18
by Derrik Klassen :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 3:41pm

It is true that the safety over No.19 did not have a shot at the outside route, but he is not supposed to. The safety is playing inside/vertical leverage, so he is meant to take away in cuts, seam routes, and posts. His purpose is to shield the middle of the field to allow the cornerback to play aggressively outside.

I hope this clears things up a little. Thank you for reading!

9
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 10:36am

Last season the Penn State passing offense was predicated on the qb throwing the ball up for grabs and the physical PSU receivers winning each contested ball. All season Big 10 onlookers scoffed and said that was unsustainable. So unsustainable PSU won the Big10 and got to the Rose Bowl.

The Vikes passing offense is very similar. So until someone finally solves Keenum's magic pixie dust I am not scoffing. Learned my lesson the hard way seeing PSU torch WI in the second half of hte Big10 Championship game

17
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 3:37pm

That was the Rose Bowl McSorley opened by throwing INTs on his first two passes and lost a tie game at the end by forcing an INT with 0:30 left, right? The one Barkley's 249 yards from scrimmage and 57 on returns got them back into?

Sounds like it got figured out in the post-season.

10
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/19/2018 - 10:39am

I do believe Keenum has been very fortunate on turnovers. Not just interceptions missed/dropped but fumbles recovered or avoided. Keenum must have been hit, momentarily lost control of the ball and then grabbed the ball again going down at least 4 times this season. Are those counted as fumbles in tracking systems?

If it's cold, his line allows pressure and his luck there finally runs out the one bad day may well happen at the worst possible time