MINNEAPOLIS — As soon as Dalvin Cook cut back, everyone inside US Bank Stadium knew he was gone.
In only his second carry of Saturday’s 20-9 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the third-year runner burst up field, split defenders and easily won a foot race to the end zone. The 85-yard run was shades of Adrian Peterson.
“I feel like if I get to the second level, be ready to change the scoreboard,” Cook said. “As a running back, you only get into the secondary so many times you have to be ready for those moments.”
So while the league is devaluing running backs and pointing toward the statistical advantage of the passing game, the ability of the Minnesota Vikings’ running back to hit a home run at any time will be especially important for an offense that will likely have its bumps in the road.
That was on display Saturday as starting quarterback Kirk Cousins went 3-for-13 for 35 yards. The offensive line did not pass protect well and Chad Beebe had a dropped pass.
“Really disappointing performance,” Cousins said. “Put it on me. It wasn’t good enough. If we play that way during the season, it’s going to be a very tough year. So we have to be much better than we were today, and I really should say I have to be much better than I was today.”
The first two preseason contests went much better for the Vikings offense but expecting them to be the ’98 Vikings this season would be unfair. The shape of the offense has changed schematically but many of the parts are the same and it’s reasonable to see them having times where the passing game sputters. The game was meaningless but the situation could be very real at some point: A slow passing game, solid defense and one run by Cook can keep the Vikings in the game.
“It was a bright spot certainly,” Cousins said of Cook’s touchdown. “Very special run. Great to see him pull away from everybody. Great cut to get the run backside. Well blocked, well executed, and certainly was a bright spot, absolutely great run by him.”
That’s precisely why the Vikings have kept Cook on ice for most of the preseason despite being a full participant for the entire duration of training camp — he’s simply too valuable for them to lose to injury.
“I was just being protective of him,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “There was no reason for not playing him other than, really I just wanted him to go in there and little bit today a get tackled and feel good, and on the one play he never did get tackled.”
Through his two limited seasons, Cook has played in 15 games, racked up 969 yards on 4.7 yards per carry and caught 51 passes. Because he missed time last season, the Vikings ranked 29th in Expected Points Added, losing approximately 38 points alone due to poor rushing. The top team in the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams, was plus-65 points, according to Pro-Football Reference.
Running with Cook might not be as important to the overall success of the Vikings offense as Cousins and the passing game but he can keep them alive during cold streaks and that is something they missed when he was hurt or battling a hamstring injury last season.