EAGAN, Minn. — Dalvin Cook’s first two seasons as a Minnesota Viking have been defined by the flashes of absurd potential and the injuries that have kept him from reaching his ceiling.
Since he returned from a hamstring injury that either hindered or kept the Vikings’ 2017 second-round pick out from Week 2 until Week 9, Cook has shredded opposing defenses. Over the last seven games, he’s gained 478 yards on just 86 carries (5.6 yards per carry), caught 27 passes and scored four touchdowns. That’s a 16-game pace of nearly 1,100 yards rushing and 62 catches.
His toughest game since returning came against this week’s opponent. On November 18, Cook picked up just 12 yards on nine carries and minus-2 yards on three receptions at Soldier Field.
With a win-and-in situation for the Vikings, Sunday afternoon’s game at US Bank Stadium presents an opportunity for Cook to officially put his name among the best running backs in the NFL.
Under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, Cook has been the focal point of the offense. In the last two weeks, he’s gained 209 yards on 35 runs along with. 62 receiving yards on four catches. His 19 and 16 carries are the two highest totals of the year.
“He’s a special talent,” Stefanski said. “God gifted him with some unique physical tools. I think you’d probably start with his feet are pretty impressive. I remember seeing his first practice out there and seeing how his feet moved and there’s only a few guys who can look like that.”
Aside from yards per carry, there isn’t a great way to quantify why so many good things happen when Cook has the ball, but Pro Football Focus’s “Elusive Rating” attempts to do so by look at opposing team’s missed tackles on a particular runner. Cook comes out as the third most elusive back in the NFL.
“Steps out of tackles. Runs, for not a huge guy, runs physical,” Zimmer said. “I think guys are surprised when they go to tackle him how much power he has, but his speed – not many guys tackle him in the open field.”
Zimmer is the least surprised person that Cook has succeeded when given the ball more often. The lack of touches earlier in the season appeared to be a sticking point for head coach Zimmer with former OC John DeFilippo. Following the team’s win over Miami, in which Cook ran for 136 yards, Zimmer said: “Cook is a pretty talented player and when he’s got the ball in his hands, typically good things happen.”
Like Stefanski, the Vikings’ head coach has been impressed with Cook from the get-go. He opened his career with a 127-yard game against the Saints last year and averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the first four games before suffering an ACL tear.
Zimmer said he was always confident in Cook coming back strong from last year’s crushing injury and this year’s nagging hamstring issue.
“Kid’s got a big heart, plays hard, I wasn’t worried,” Zimmer said.
“I give him a ton of credit, coming off the injury he just worked his tail off in the training room and worked so hard with coach [Kennedy] Polamalu in the run game, pass game, in protection,” Stefanski added. “He’s working really hard and you’re seeing the benefits on gameday.”
One area that isn’t as noticeable as Cook’s rushing or receiving is his pass blocking. According to PFF, he’s allowed just five pressures on Kirk Cousins in 65 pass blocking snaps this season. PFF grades him as the sixth best blocking back in the NFL. He will certainly be needed in protection this week against Khalil Mack and the Bears’ pass rush.
“It’s hard,” Stefanski said of young RBs learning to pass block. “Having coached the position just for a year, you spend a lot of time talking about protections, you spend a lot of time detailing the protection techniques…It’s not easy. It comes more natural to some guys, but you can’t be shy of contact and Dalvin is not one of those type of guys. He goes in there and when he applies his technique, he’s pretty darn good.”
Making his mark against the Bears’ defense will be a shade more challenging than the Dolphins or Lions. This year Chicago has given up just 3.8 yards per attempt, which is tied for fourth best in the NFL, and they have allowed the second fewest yards per game on the ground.
Cook’s ability to draw the attention of Chicago defense will also be important in the passing game. Zimmer urged Stefanski to use more play-action last week against Detroit and it’s likely we will see the Vikings again trying to draw the defense toward their most dangerous playmaker in order to open up throws for Cousins.
“I just feel like play-actions are difficult on defenses,” Zimmer said. “You start getting them moving forward in the running game, get them out of their spots a little bit and they have to run and react to other places.”
While play-action can work without an effective run game, the Vikings’ offense overall probably can’t. Gaining just 22 yards against the Bears at Soldier Field allowed Mack and Co. to come after Cousins, who was routinely in third-and-long.
“We only ran it 14 times I think, right? This team is going to be hard to run against, but you can’t run it 14 times,” Zimmer said.
That means the spotlight will be on Cook.
The last time he played in a no-tomorrow type game was in the Orange Bowl against Michigan was nearly two years to the day from Sunday’s must-win for the Vikings. He ran for 145 yards, scored one touchdown and added 62 more through the air. If the Vikings are going to make the playoffs, they will need something special out of him again.