In what has become a mostly lost season, the Vikings finally crafted a game plan on Sunday that led to their second victory of the season. That 28-22 win over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field included the latest defensive masterpiece called by coach Mike Zimmer. Just as importantly, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak came up with a winning formula that likely pleased Zimmer to no end.
It started with a heavy dose of star running back Dalvin Cook, who had missed the Vikings’ embarrassing loss to Atlanta on Oct. 18 because of a groin injury, and included a very limited dose of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was turned into a $96 million game manager with one specific assignment: Don’t lose the game.
Cook was brilliant in rushing for 163 yards on 30 carries with three touchdowns and catching two passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. But on a windy day in Lambeau Field, the Vikings also took the ball out of Cousins’ hands at nearly every opportunity. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 160 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown to Cook on which the running back did almost all of the work. It was the second fewest attempts Cousins has had since joining the Vikings in 2018. His low was an 8-for-10 performance for 98 yards with a touchdown in a 28-12 Week 1 victory over Atlanta last season.
Cousins said after that game that there would be high-scoring games where he needed to consistently put the ball in the air. Cousins changed his tune this past week, perhaps providing a glimpse of how small of role he would play against the Packers, when he talked about getting away from trying to make the big play and hitting more singles. In truth, Cousins spent most of Sunday squared around trying to move runners over. It worked.
Considering how things have gone for Cousins in 2020, this might be the formula the Vikings will need to stick with for the remainder of the year, whether they are playing inside or outside. Heck, the franchise might be wise to see if they can have their remaining home games, at least after next Sunday’s game against Detroit, moved to TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus where a few thousand fans might be allowed to attend and there would be a built in excuse for why Cousins was throwing so few passes.
There were many moments Sunday when it was clear that Kubiak had complete faith in Cook and very little in Cousins. He wasn’t wrong to feel this way, although there does have to be a concern that using Cook as much as the Vikings did will soon lead to another injury. Cousins had thrown 10 interceptions in six games before Sunday, including three in the loss to the Falcons. No Vikings quarterback has thrown 20 picks in a season since Tommy Kramer had 26 in 1985, which is basically 100 years ago when it comes to QB play in the NFL.
Cook is one of the league’s best running backs, but has struggled to stay healthy during his first three-plus seasons. His latest injury came in the third quarter of the Vikings’ one-point loss on Oct. 11 in Seattle. He was held out of the next game and also had the bye week off before returning to practice last week. Cook was listed as questionable on the Vikings’ injury report Friday and the suggestion from this space was to hold him out at least one more week.
This isn’t because the Vikings don’t need him, they need him badly, but because a 1-5 team shouldn’t be taking chances with a star player who just received a long-term contract extension. There also is conflict because the feeling is if Cook is on the field he needs to be used a lot. He certainly was on Sunday. His 30 carries were a career-high and his 32 touches fell one short of the career-high he set in a win last November in Dallas.
The Vikings will celebrate beating their arch-rival and, in a bad league, will claim there is still a chance to make a playoff run but this team isn’t going anywhere and everyone knows it. Now, here’s the good news about what Cook was able to do, without being injured, on Sunday.
His domination of the Packers, who seemingly forgot how to tackle and maybe never knew how to do it, enabled Zimmer and Kubiak to display how Cousins should be used. It doesn’t matter what his paycheck reads, Cousins is more Kelly Holcomb than Brett Favre and that’s not going to change.
The greatest display of how much Cousins frightens his employers, at least those responsible for calling plays, came in the fourth quarter with the Vikings ahead by six points. Facing a third-and-9 from the Vikings’ 33-yard line, Cousins handed off to Cook for a 5-yard gain. The Vikings then called a time out before bringing in Britton Cloquitt to punt. The Packers got the ball back at their own 28 with 47 seconds left.
It was pointed out by many that the Vikings wanted to run clock and give Aaron Rodgers the ball back with as little time as possible. That’s true but it was also true that with receivers like Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and even Cook, the Vikings never once gave thought to putting Sunday’s game in Cousins’ hands at any point during that drive. If Cousins was paid like Case Keenum, Holcomb, Gus Frerotte or Steve Dils, this would have been fine because the quarterback would be surrounded by highly paid players who benefitted from having a QB on the cheap.
Instead, Kubiak looked at a guy making $96 million and said, “no thanks.” The decision made sense. But therein lies the problem. Cousins, who did not throw an interception in a game for only the second time this season, is signed through 2022 with scheduled salary cap hits of $21 million this season, $31 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022. He is paid like a star. On Sunday, it was made clear that Cousins gives his team the best chance to win when the ball is 1) taken out of his hands and 2) handed to a running back who is a marvelous talent but injury prone.
This led to an upset victory over the Packers, but the guess is it did not lead to a great night of sleep for the Vikings’ chief decision-makers who have little choice but to turn their biggest investment into a role player.