Photo credit: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune
Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
Once Harrison Smith corralled Mike Glennon’s overthrown overtime pass to D.J. Chark, putting the Vikings in position to close out a game they seemed at various points in danger of losing, there was little doubt about how they were going to end it.
The Vikings threw on three plays (one negated by a Justin Jefferson offside penalty) to advance from the Jaguars’ 46 to the 32, and then turned the game over to Dalvin Cook. They ran him for five yards on first down, gave it to him for a one-yard loss on second down, and on 3rd-and-6 from the Jaguars’ 28, when the Vikings appeared only to be trying to get Dan Bailey a little closer for a field goal to end a shaky day, Cook gave them another 10 yards.
So the Vikings just kept handing it to him.
“That was another part. During the game, do we kick?” coach Mike Zimmer said after the game. “We’re close enough to kick the field goal to go home or do we keep giving the ball to Dalvin? We would’ve kept giving it to him but we false start on the 1-yard line … on the 1-inch line is where it was.“
All told, Cook ran the ball on eight straight plays, as the Vikings closed out the 27-24 overtime victory by counting on the player they trust most. He ended the day with 32 carries and six catches, touching the ball more times than any non-quarterback in Vikings history other than Ted Brown (who had 39 on Nov. 8, 1981).
Cook now has four games of at least 30 touches this season, more than any NFL player since Le’Veon Bell had six such games for the Steelers in 2017. He has handled the ball 182 times in the Vikings’ past six games, and a league-high 286 for the season (despite missing the Vikings’ Oct. 18 loss to the Falcons with a groin injury). If Cook averages 28.5 touches in the Vikings’ final four games of the regular season, he’ll become just the NFL’s 20th player since 2000 to record 400 in a season. He needs only 103 more to surpass the franchise-record 388 that Adrian Peterson recorded in his 2012 MVP season.
As the Vikings lean on Cook, the player they’ve deemed their best option to climb out of a 1-5 hole and make a playoff charge, the next three weeks especially will provide an indicator of whether he can make it last.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said last week on KFAN he thought Cook had gotten “beat up” in recent games, and the running back has averaged fewer than four yards per carry in three of his past four games. According to Sharp Football Stats, he’s only been successful on 47 percent of his rushing attempts in the past four weeks, after posting successful runs on 59 percent of his attempts in the Vikings’ first eight games. And according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cook has averaged fewer rushing yards than expected in three of those four games (his season-long rate of 0.87 yards per carry over expectation is the sixth-best in the league).
The Jaguars put an extra defender in the box on 17 of Cook’s 32 carries on Sunday, though he’d only seen an eight-man box 20 percent of the time in his previous three games (his season-long rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, is 32.67 percent — the sixth-highest among backs with more than 100 carries). So while Jacksonville keyed on Cook this week, there’s nothing to suggest defenses are consistently going further out of their way than normal to stop him.
After an ankle injury reduced his workload against the Panthers, Cook bristled at questions about his workload from a reporter last week, saying, “What is that — wear down? What does that mean? I’m a running back. I’m a running back just like anybody else. I don’t think that’s a question you’ll ask Derrick Henry or anybody else. I’m a running back. There’s no wearing down. I’m ready to tote the ball.” Coach Mike Zimmer didn’t necessarily ascribe to the theory Cook was working too much after Sunday’s game, either.
“No, I didn’t notice anything there,” he said. “They did a good job. They were overloading a lot, bringing a lot of pressure from the inside and outside. Mattison was out today, so that was part of it as well.”
But the last thing Zimmer mentioned — the absence of Alexander Mattison due to appendix surgery on Saturday — could factor into how the next few weeks go, as well. The Vikings will face the league’s top two run defenses in their next two road games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans; the Bears, who come to Minneapolis for a Dec. 20 matchup, also got defensive tackle Akiem Hicks back Sunday from the hamstring injury he sustained against the Vikings on Nov. 16. The Vikings had reduced Mattison’s workload since the bye week, but if they have to wait for him to recover from surgery while they face some difficult run fronts in the coming weeks, they might not have much choice other than to keep up the pace with Cook if they’re as committed to the run as they seem to be.
The Vikings’ deliberations about a contract extension for Cook this summer, before they gave him a five-year, $63 million deal the day before the season, were focused partially on whether he could hold up for several years (after playing only 15 games his first two seasons and dealing with shoulder injuries late in 2019). The 25-year-old switched gyms this summer to focus more on weightlifting, spent time around 37-year-old Frank Gore and incorporated more massages and therapy to keep his body strong through the rigors of a 16-game season.
He’d played 71 snaps on Sunday by the time the Vikings decided to run him eight straight times to end the game. The final weeks of their second-half scramble for a playoff bid might leave them with few options but to test the thesis Cook can hold up to an historic workload.
Here is one other trend to watch from the Vikings’ 27-24 win over the Jaguars.
Pressure on Kirk Cousins: The quarterback was sacked four times on Sunday and pressured on 19 of his 48 dropbacks on Sunday (after being pressured on 19 of 49 the previous week), according to Pro Football Focus. Cousins put some of the pressure on himself Sunday, saying he had plays where he knew he’d be throwing with pressure and either didn’t get rid of the ball or chose to take a sack rather than risking a turnover. But as the Panthers and Jaguars blitzed the Vikings more, they also put Cousins under duress. It’s worth watching as the Vikings face a Buccaneers team this week that likes to bring extra pressure.
Two players who stood out:
Cameron Dantzler: The Vikings’ cornerbacks hadn’t intercepted a pass all season until Dantzler ripped the ball away from tight end Eric Schobert in the first half, and the rookie stripped D.J. Chark for a fumble he recovered in the second half. Especially if Jeff Gladney’s calf injury lingers in the final weeks of the regular season, the Vikings will need Dantzler to continue to improve against the teams they’ll need to beat to reach the playoffs.
Jordan Brailford: The defensive end hadn’t been active for a game yet this season, but in his debut for the Vikings, he made the most of his 11 snaps. He chased down Mike Glennon on a 3rd-and-5 in the third quarter, knocking the ball out with a swipe of his right arm, and recovered the fumble. Then, after Kirk Cousins’ botched exchange with Cook stopped the Vikings’ drive at the Jaguars’ goal line, Brailford and Ifeadi Odenigbo split a sack of Mike Glennon for a safety.
Two areas of concern:
Cook’s role in turnovers: Technically, the running back wasn’t charged with a fumble on Sunday; Cousins was given the fumble on an aborted play. Cousins said after the game that Cook was concerned he’d be tackled as he was trying to take the handoff from Cousins, so the running back reached for the ball rather than waiting for Cousins to get it to him. He also hadn’t turned around on the pass Cousins threw to him that Joe Schobert intercepted and returned for a touchdown; Cousins and Zimmer called the play a miscommunication. “You talk about looking hard at yourself, I’m going to go back and make sure going into our next game that every single time I’m calling a play that we all, all 11 in the huddle, are on the same page and not allow those kinds of things to happen,” Cousins said.
While Derrick Henry is the only non-quarterback to record more touches than Cook’s 589 over the past two seasons, only Ezekiel Elliott has more fumbles than Cook’s eight in that time. Cook’s fumbles were something of a concern before the 2017 draft, and he’s been involved in some costly turnovers the past two games.
Late-game defense: The Vikings lost two weeks ago to the Cowboys when Andy Dalton engineered a game-winning drive. They came within a missed Joey Slye field goal of falling to the Panthers last week, and Mike Glennon hit two throws of 20-plus yards — a deep out to D.J. Chark and a corner route against two-deep coverage to Collin Johnson — on the Jaguars’ game-tying drive. Johnson beat Dantzler for the two-point conversion on a play that caused Zimmer to throw his play sheet to the ground. In eight of their 12 games, the Vikings have found themselves defending a lead of a touchdown or less in the final minutes; they’ve given up scores in four of those situations, escaping with a goal-line pass breakup in Houston, D.J. Wonnum’s strip sack in Green Bay, a fourth-down stop after Nick Foles missed Anthony Miller deep in Chicago and Slye’s missed field goal last week. The Vikings will face Tom Brady this week, and could see Drew Brees return before their Christmas Day matchup with the Saints in New Orleans. Even with Brady’s intermittent struggles and Brees’ attempts to return from fractured ribs, it stands to reason the Vikings won’t have much margin for error at the end of games they’ll need to win to get to the postseason.
One big question:
Should the Vikings be taken seriously in the NFC? Now back to 6-6, the Vikings have assembled their .500 record in a way that lends itself to all manner of what-if scenarios: What if they’d made a stop against the Titans, converted a fourth down against the Seahawks or brought Tony Pollard down against the Cowboys? Flip those three games, and the Vikings are battling the Packers for the NFC North title at 9-3. It’s a tantalizing thought, but to play that game seriously, you have to consider the other side: What if Holton Hill hadn’t knocked the pass away against the Texans, Slye had made the field goal last week or the Jaguars hadn’t turned the ball over four times on Sunday? With so many close games on their schedule this year, it’s perhaps time to invoke a well-known aphorism from Zimmer’s mentor Bill Parcells: You are what your record says you are. The Vikings, then, are 6-6, right in the middle of the NFC. They’ve got perhaps a tougher schedule than the Cardinals and Buccaneers, the teams they’re battling most closely for the final wild-card spot, but if they win in Tampa next week, they’ll have a strong path to the playoffs. It’s tough to look at the NFC and find the same kind of dominant team that exists in Pittsburgh or Kansas City, so it’s possible the Vikings could make some noise if they get in, but they’ll have to play well for the next month or more to go anywhere. If they control Brady next week and can move the ball against a Tampa defense that ranks No. 1 in the league against the run, they’ll have their best statement since their Nov. 1 win at Lambeau Field (which, if the season ended today, would be the Vikings’ first-round playoff destination).