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The chips and choice routes that turned into a gem for TJ Hockenson vs. 49ers

The Vikings' tight end had arguably his best game as a Viking

EAGAN — The most Minnesota nice way to describe the first six games of the 2023 season for TJ Hockenson would be that it wasn’t exactly the start to his new contract that he wanted. But in the biggest moment of the season, Hockenson played quite possibly his best game as a Viking.

On Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers, the 26-year-old tight end caught 11 passes for 86 yards, which doesn’t even begin to tell the entire story. Six of those receptions resulted in first downs and he played a massive role in helping protect Kirk Cousins throughout the 22-17 victory.

At the center of his performance, which Pro Football Focus graded as the third best game of his entire career, was two concepts that have made Hockenson an invaluable part of the offense versus the 49ers: Choice routes and chips.

On the Vikings’ second drive, he combined both on a play that would shape the game.

After recovering a Christian McCaffrey fumble the Vikings were in the shadow of their own end zone facing third-and-12. A punt would have given the 49ers the ball right back in Viking territory and given San Fran a chance to jump ahead in a game where they were already coming in as a heavy favorite. Instead Hockenson found himself wide open over the middle for a first down. The drive ended up in a tone-setting touchdown.

It wasn’t a coverage bust or random event that led to him getting open. Hockenson explained on Wednesday that after giving a chip block to pass rusher Nick Bosa, he had an option to read the situation and go where he sought fit.

“I have the option to do whatever I want there,” Hockenson said. “I saw [the linebacker’s] eyes go deep and outside and he lost leverage of me. Kirk and I were on the same page.”


Hockenson had 11 receptions in Minnesota's upset win over the 49ers. 

The choice route has been a staple since Hockenson arrived. He said that O’Connell’s system gives him the option to read and react.

“It took me a while when I was first in the league, they gave me choice routes in Detroit my first year with Stafford and he sat me down and took me through all the coverages and what he assumed in different situations,” Hockenson said. “Here it’s been super easy because [Cousins] is really good with anticipation with me and KO has given me the freedom to see what I see. That makes it a lot easier than, ‘you have to break out here, you have to break out here, oh now you can break in.’ Instead of being able to actually read it and understand what the defense is giving you and feel space. That’s something I can do well.”

Throughout the game Hockenson was difficult to cover for the 49ers, creating an average of 3.1 yards of separation per reception according to NFLNextGen Stats (which was the same as Stefon Diggs in Week 7). A number of his most open targets came on choice routes.

“I think there’s a trust level with him,” Cousins said. “He showed right away that he has a good feel for some of those routes where he has to make a good decision on the fly. That he’ll make the right decision, that with his athleticism he’ll create separation, and a lot of it is also Kevin designing the plays and putting him in a position where the ball is likely going to go to him. As long as I throw with accuracy and he does his job, the ball goes to him.”

Later in the first half Hockenson had a more subtle role in a gigantic play that swung the game.

With seven seconds remaining in the first half and the Vikings ahead 10-7 with the ball at the Minnesota 40-yard line, Cousins flung the ball toward Jordan Addison. The rookie stole it away from cornerback Charvarius Ward and trotted into the end zone for a spectacular touchdown. What went less noticed was that when the 49ers sent an all-out blitz, Hockenson got lined up against Bosa. He was smashed back toward the QB by the defensive MVP but held on just long enough for Cousins to get the throw off.

“We asked him to do a lot in the plan, whether it was be responsible for some of those kind of protection tools to help Kirk [Cousins] be as efficient and as explosive as he was,” O’Connell said on Wednesday. “We don’t really know where 97 [Nick Bosa] is going to be, well it ends up he’s got to block him one-on-one and survived that down enough that Kirk can get that ball thrown and caught on Jordan’s great play.”

Most of Hockenson’s efforts against Bosa were in the form of chips, which is where he gives a little extra help to the offensive tackle before going out on his route. On ESPN, analysts Dan Orlovsky and Marcus Spears highlighted his role in O’Connell’s gameplan to slow Bosa.

“[Bosa’s] super power is getting off the football,” Spears said. “His first step is what puts tackles in a bind but you see a little hesitation because [Bosa] is trying to change his body angle.”

“Offensively we are trying to give our tackle to get set before the first initial move and they did an outstanding job of making sure they gave Kirk a chance,” Orlovsky said.

O’Connell used Hockenson often during the win in conjunction with fellow tight end Josh Oliver. The No. 2 TE played a season high 30 snaps, a number of which came in alignments on the same side as Hockenson. The two have started to develop chemistry on combo blocks and releases, which was particularly demonstrated on Hockenson’s longest catch of the game, a play-action throw where he ran a deep crossing route. The Vikings got a different look than expected and Oliver had to adapt how he blocked in order to allow him to get out on the route.

“It was hard for me because I have to outside release that and Josh is on my outside so he has to really take a second and realize where I’m at in space and how I move around that guy rather than just being able to bulldoze,” Hockenson said.

The Vikings need all the contributions they can get with Justin Jefferson still on the shelf and that remains the case as they head to Green Bay. On Wednesday Hockenson did not practice due to a foot injury that he battled through during Monday night’s game. They won’t just need him in the lineup but once again in peak form in order to carry over the momentum from his best game of the season.

“He played a really, really strong game and quite honestly, that’s what I expect out of T.J. with what he’s done ever since he got here,” O’Connell said.