When the Minnesota Vikings opened the season against the San Francisco 49ers, it appeared Dalvin Cook was going to be the centerpiece of the offense.
While the Vikings’ two elite receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have been terrific, Cook’s ability to play different roles forces opponents to gameplan for him differently than other running backs.
“He has got a chance to hit home runs,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think it was really good for him to get out there and get some game time action. When you haven’t played in six weeks and you haven’t practiced all that much I think he will continue to get better. See some of the cuts a little bit better as he gets going.”
Without Cook in the lineup, the Viking still found ways to pound the ball and create explosive runs with Latavius Murray, but they barely used Murray, Roc Thomas or Mike Boone as key components to the passing game.
In Cook’s return on Sunday, we saw him break off a 70-yard run and show a glimpse of what he can do in the screen game.
On the first drive, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo dialed up a play in Cook’s direction that nearly broke the game open from the start.
With both Cook and Murray in the game, the former Florida State star motion into the slot. He was followed by a Lions linebacker, indicating Detroit was in man coverage. At the snap, right tackle Brian O’Neill and right guard Mike Remmers pulled to the right and center Pat Elflein took off into the second level looking for work. The play’s design sets up for a one-on-one between Cook and a defensive back — a matchup the Vikings often win.
On the snap, Kirk Cousins gets rid of the ball quickly, but it’s slightly behind Cook, forcing him to take a step in the wrong direction before heading up field.
Had the throw been on point, the defensive end might not have been able to run him down from behind. If he wasn’t caught, Cook may have been able to get to the edge with a strong block by Laquon Treadwell.
Notice how quickly right tackle Brian O’Neill gets out into the second level and finds a defensive back to drive up field.
The Vikings not only have the playmaking running back capable of home runs on screen passes, they now have an O-line build to succeed on screens with O’Neill in the lineup and Elflein healthy.
Between the opening drive and the fourth quarter, the Vikings did not go back to the screen game with Cook — which may be dictated by how the Lions played on defense, but is still surprising considering how close they were to breaking a big play in the first quarter.
When they did return to the screen game, a quick throw to Cook resulted in a solid six-yard gain. Again he was close to breaking out for a bigger chunk of yards. If the Lions linebacker didn’t make a highly athletic play jumping over Elflein’s cut block, Cook would have been set up against a cornerback alone in the open field.
This play is an exact replica of a Pat Shurmur invention used last year against the Tampa Bay Bucs, right down to Kyle Rudolph lining up in the backfield.
Last year, the quick throw to Cook against the Bucs worked for a sizable gain as well.
Here is a look at the play design using Play Art Pro:
Speaking of last season, filing in for Cook in the role of screen-pass extraordinaire was Jerick McKinnon, who averaged an exceptional 7.0 yards per reception on throws behind the line of scrimmage. Cook has the potential to repeat that and more.
If the Vikings are looking back to 2017 for screen-pass inspiration, one of the Vikings’ best came against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
A few things to notice: A) Elflein throws his guy B) right guard Joe Berger shows a double-team block like a run play and then leaves his man to block up field on the left side. C) Keenum’s play-fake clearly gave the Lions a bootleg look because all of their defenders started moving to his right. Look at the deep safety floating toward Thielen’s side. D) Easton also double-team blocked to start and then drove Detroit’s linebacker out of the play.
Of course, there are many ways to use Cook outside of the rushing game. He ran a slant route for a 24-yard gain against the Packers. We could also see more of him as a slot receiver with Murray in the backfield.
“When he’s been in he’s been special,” Cousins said. “What can he do for us when healthy? I would think he can do what he showed today and what he’s shown in other opportunities he’s gotten. But we have to get him out there, we have to keep him healthy and we have to give him opportunities.”