EAGAN — When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Alexander Mattison in the third round, they made no bones about the fact that they were looking for a replacement for veteran Latavius Murray, who signed with New Orleans in the offseason. While it’s yet to be seen whether he can reach the status of Murray, the Boise State star has already left a strong impression on Mike Zimmer.
Responding to a question about the competition in the backfield, the Vikings’ head coach set Mattison apart from the other players vying for the backup position behind starter Dalvin Cook.
“I think Mattison has got a really bright future,” Zimmer said. “I think the other two guys can help in change-of-pace situations.”
In his exhibition debut for the Vikings against the New Orleans Saints on Friday night, Mattison got the start in place of Cook, who was kept out due to concerns about the stadium turf. He rushed nine times for 30 yards and caught one pass for a touchdown. Another reception was called back due to penalty.
Zimmer wasn’t all roses with his rookie RB. He added that Mattison still needs to improve in order to be trusted in key situations.
“Mattison is going to have to continually work on his pass protection,” the head coach said. “We didn’t want to put him in there the other night just because of some of the things that might happen.”
Mattison, who led the Mountain West conference in rushing last year, said he noticed the difference in game speed in getting his first taste of NFL action.
“The game is a lot faster, things happen a lot faster, especially getting that experience [against the Saints] I was able to really see that,” he said.
With a backfield that includes a veteran back in Abdullah and budding star in Cook, Mattison has an opportunity to learn from the players in the running back room and adapt to the highest level in short order.
“A mindset, for one,” Mattison said. “They have a dog mentality. It’s awesome to see that, especially with the energy they have, the excitement they bring. Also their routines, getting with Ameer [Abdullah] and doing post-practice stuff to take care of my body. Looking at how Dalvin prepares to warm up for games. Just getting with those guys and pick their brains a little bit and see what it takes to be a veteran.”
Mattison also mentioned that he’s become more comfortable with the Vikings’ base plays and is aiming to understand the nuances of the Kubiak/Stefanski system.
While Zimmer seemed to indicate Mattison is ahead by a wide margin in the RB2 competition, the Abdullah and Boone put together strong performances against the Saints. Boone had a 64-yard touchdown run and Abdullah gained 63 yards on just four rushes.
“[Abdullah and Boone] are smaller guys, so if they’re going to be in there on third downs, they’re going to have to block bigger guys, so that’s going to be their deal as well,” Zimmer said. “That part of it, I think we feel like they all can run, they’re all smart enough to run the offense and things like that. But it will come down to third downs and those areas.”
The Vikings have made it clear they want to improve in the running game this season, especially when it comes to explosive carries. Last season they ranked 14th in the league with 13 runs of more than 20 yards. Overall Minnesota finished 30th in total yards.
Zimmer talked about his philosophy of wanting to stick with the running game even if it sputters at times.
“I had an old coach one time that used to talk to the team, it was coach [Barry] Switzer, he ran the wishbone at Oklahoma and then he came to the NFL, he would talk to them all the time [the running game] would be a one [yard gain] here and two here and minus-one there and pretty soon it’s a 13 and then it’s a 20,” Zimmer said. “They are not all going to be explosive runs but the idea of sticking with it and having that mindset that we’re going to pop one of these eventually — and we popped a couple [vs. New Orleans]. And it’s going to help on the play-action because linebackers are playing the run and safeties are playing the run.”
If the Vikings’ plan is to run often, Mattison could see a share of the workload along with Cook in 2019.