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What the return of Adam Thielen means to a rolling Vikings offense

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EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have been without Adam Thielen for almost two months since the Pro Bowl receiver sustained a hamstring injury catching a touchdown pass in a Week 7 win at Detroit.

He is expected to return on Sunday when the Vikings face the Chargers in Los Angeles. Thielen, who tried to come back in a Nov. 3 game against the Chiefs but aggravated the injury early, was limited in practice all week.

Many teams would suffer without one of their top playmakers, but the Vikings have excelled in finding new ways to use their personnel while discovering untapped depth.

"I'm excited," quarterback Kirk Cousins said of Thielen's pending return. "The only thing you're worried about is, ‘Hey, we've got a good rhythm going, you know?' It does feel different when you have him back. It has a different dynamic, so you just joke with him, ‘Hey, don't rock the boat too much. We've been doing pretty good.'"

All jokes aside, adding a player of Thielen's caliber back into the mix is sure to give this offense a boost while providing an additional layer of difficulty for defenses having to account for him and Stefon Diggs.

Thielen returns to an offense that ranks seventh in scoring and 11th in yards. The past six games taught offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski how to effectively distribute the workload typically reserved for Thielen among other receivers, tight ends and running backs.

That shift took place almost immediately after Thielen went down. Rookie Bisi Johnson, who was emerging as the Vikings' No. 3 receiver, was asked to fill the void opposite Diggs. Against the Lions on Oct. 20, Johnson scored his first NFL touchdown and has since added two more. Laquon Treadwell has seen his opportunities increase as well, becoming a trusted target for Cousins on third down (five receptions).

Tight end usage also has spiked. Since Week 7, Kyle Rudolph leads all NFL tight ends with five red zone touchdowns. Targets inside the 20-yard line have more than doubled for this group (six to 15) from Weeks 7 to 14, as have catches (11) and TDs (six).

"It's changed a lot," running back Dalvin Cook said of the offense. "You've seen guys grow up fast. Tread's in Year 4, but I think Tread's still got no ceiling to him. He's still growing, he's still finding his role. [Johnson], he grew up so fast. He's out there making plays. Rudy's become a valuable option, which he's always been. We're just giving him the ball more and you're just seeing guys step up with Adam down, but I'm hoping to have him back. We want him back."

Minnesota's playcalling also has experienced a slight change. From Weeks 1-7, there was a true 50-50 split between called passes and runs. Having tapped into the potential of other pass-catchers, Stefanski has called designed passes 56% of the time since Week 8, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Vikings' offensive efficiency (64.5) ranks seventh from Weeks 8-14, which is well above average, and the unit is running plays around 1.8 seconds of possession faster since the Washington game in Week 8.

Through all this, the one thing that hasn't changed is the effectiveness of Diggs. To have 56 receptions for 997 yards and five touchdowns through 13 games on a team with a run-first mentality (Cook has rushed 241 times for 1,108 yards and 13 TDs) is impressive in its own right. Having notched three games of over 121 yards receiving since Week 7 while ranking second in the NFC in yards per reception (17.8) speaks to how well Diggs has continued to play with or without Thielen.

"I think the fact that Adam's been out and the way that Diggsy has played is even more credit to him," assistant head coach/offensive adviser Gary Kubiak said. "He has gotten doubled -- you name it -- people trying to take him out of the football game. When you've got a receiver on the field who you're trying to get the ball to and people are taking him away, you really have to challenge the receiver. You've got to move, you've got to motion, you've got to do things maybe you're not comfortable with so we can get you open and he's bought into that."

Thielen's absence makes Diggs' job undoubtedly harder. Since Week 8, teams have increased the amount of man coverage they're playing against him (up from 55% to 64%), yet Diggs remains in the top five in tight-window catch rate (less than 1 yard of separation), per NFL Next Gen Stats.

"He's been playing at a high level, probably the best I've ever seen him play," Thielen said. "You see it where he's getting a lot of coverage and a lot of looks and a lot of attention, and he's still able to get open and make plays. Obviously it comes down to Kirk as well trusting Diggsy to make plays when there's a lot of coverage."

It's easy to assume that plugging Thielen back into the game plan will be seamless.

"It just gives you probably a little more versatility so that defenses aren't able to say, 'The ball's probably going to this person or this direction on this route,'" Cousins said. "With more players, with Adam coming back, they have to defend more and stay honest more."

One of Minnesota's underlying goals for 2019 was to build an offense that had answers beyond Thielen and Diggs. A year after both receivers topped 1,000 yards and were the focal point of the scheme, the Vikings aimed to achieve more balance.

It took an untimely injury to figure out that's exactly what they have with this group. Minnesota's production without Thielen has this offense positioned to ignite a playoff run when he returns.