Through the first four weeks Dalvin Cook showed the NFL his true potential by picking up over 100 yards on the ground in three of the first four weeks but it wasn’t until Week 5 that his ability in the passing game shined through.
Cook gained 86 yards on six receptions (14.3 yards per catch). None of his previous four games had topped 40 yards through the air.
“Any time he’s in space he has a chance to be really good,” head coach Mike Zimmer said following Sunday’s win over the Giants. “The more that we can be good on screens the better that helps and there were a couple checkdowns today where he made some guys miss.”
Cook set his season high with 27 touches, bumping his total up to 113 on the season. In 11 games in 2018 he only had the ball 173 times (he was hindered by a hamstring at times).
“I don’t really care how many carries he gets or how many times we throw the ball,” Zimmer said. “It’s all about trying to do the best that we can do to win. When he has the ball in his hand, he’s very dangerous as you can see on that tape. There’s so many ‘wow’ plays when he has the ball in his hands that he can do so much damage. When we get the passing game going like we did yesterday and him running, I think it’s a good mixture.”
Dalvin Cook’s ability to make people miss & accelerate is special. If you’re going to throw screens & check downs he is a great person to throw them to.
— Ryan Clark (@Realrclark25) October 9, 2019
Following Sunday’s strong showing, we may seen an increase of Cook’s ‘wow’ plays through the air and that can have an impact on multiple areas, not just the pass-and-catch from Kirk Cousins to his star running back. So let’s have a look at what worked against the lowly Giants and how it can carry over to tougher opponents coming up…
We start with the opening drive of the game, clearly one of Kevin Stefanski’s scripted plays, which added a dash of creativity to a screen for Cook.
The Vikings used two running backs in the game at the same time with Cook and Ameer Abdullah, who appears to be seeing more of the field on offense. The former Lion motions into an H-Back position — something you would expect from a tight end. At the snap he comes across the formation into a hole created by right tackle Brian O’Neill (75) blocking down the line on a zone run look. Abdullah draws a ton of attention on the right side while a play-fake to Cook has the linebackers searching for a run play on the left.
Bisi Johnson’s deep crossing route clears out the deep safety and the left guard, center and right guard all look to the second level for blocks. Since five defenders were occupied by Abdullah and Johnson, that left only three on the play side and one of them had come up on the run. Cook easily burst through the hole for a big gain.
With four talented running backs, a solid fullback and three capable tight ends, the Vikings can manipulate defenses with personnel packages. The Giants kept two linebackers in the game and were at a distinct size disadvantage against the Vikings running two backs and two tight ends.
In the second quarter the Vikings ran a screen that called upon a shallow crossing route by Stefon Diggs to move the linebacker (55) and open space for Cook. Center Garrett Bradbury, drafted in the first round in large part because of his athleticism, flies out into the flat to hit a defensive back — a huge mismatch.
The two tight ends on the strong side of the formation draw attention with No. 21 and No. 31 over them at the snap — and nowhere near where the play is going.
This time Cook’s pure talent is on display (spoiler for later clips, there will be more evidence of this). He is matched up one-on-one with the Giants’ safety (41) and simply blows right by him without slowing down. The linebacker (55) needs 20 yards to finally cut down Cook.
Our next play is very similar with Bradbury headed into space but it comes out of a different formation. Fullback CJ Ham is in the backfield with Cook rather than a single back set. Showing their hand pre-snap, the Giants give a pretty clear indication by the location of No. 45 and No. 21 that it will be man coverage, so when Ham runs into the flat, No. 45 vacates the area where Cook will be getting the ball.
But that also means the linebacker (55) will be keying Cook. The detail to watch here is Cook selling the pass protection, drawing the linebacker in and then taking off. Even the slightest miscue against Cook and he’s going to pick up big yards.
Our final play is a check down that nearly turned into a touchdown*.
*Stefon Diggs explained that he was concerned about getting the same penalty as Chad Beebe in Week 3 so he didn’t lay a backside block.
The Giants are playing two deep safeties and off coverage against Johnson and Thielen with press on Diggs on the short side of the field. Cousins quickly checks down despite having time in the pocket but the linebacker dropped too deep into an area where no Vikings player was even remotely running, giving Cook space again with which to work.
Getting the ball to Cook in space is a pretty vague notion but here’s the domino effect: The interior of the Vikings offensive line has been problematic through three games but they clearly have the capability to get in space and make blocks for Cook. More of Bradbury/Elflein/Kline on the move equates to less time standing in and pass blocking.
There’s also a potential impact on receivers. Cook’s success escaping linebackers is enough to cause sleepless nights for opposing defenders. Linebackers will have to play him tight on check downs, which could open areas behind him in the passing game. They will have to be on high alert for anything appearing to be a screen, which opens the door for creative options. And even when he appears to be helping as a pass blocker, some hesitation will be required because he might suddenly explode into a route.
Much has been said about the Vikings overall philosophy but against the Giants they let the pass set up Cook’s huge day on the ground. They will need more of that if they want to win a shootout against the Eagles and more.