EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings were able to overcome the loss of Adam Thielen to a hamstring injury against Detroit and Washington but last Sunday against Kansas City quarterback Kirk Cousins averaged just 5.8 yards per pass and Stefon Diggs finished with one reception for four yards.
This week it appears unlikely that they will have Thielen in the lineup as the Vikings head to Dallas to face the Cowboys. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported the team is going to proceed with caution.
“We’ll have to see how the rest of the week goes,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.
Thielen did not practice Wednesday.
#Vikings WR Adam Thielen’s strained hamstring is no worse after his brief appearance in KC, I'm told, but he’s unlikely to play Sunday against the #Cowboys. Could feel it pulling and need to calm it down. Note: Bye is 2 weeks away and team errs on the conservative side.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) November 5, 2019
In the two previous games without Thielen, Diggs made up for his absence by grabbing a number of downfield passes and picked up 285 yards on 14 catches. He acknowledged on Wednesday that opponents are going to roll in his direction with Thielen out.
“You can definitely see a difference as far as what they like to do and what they are trying to take away,” Diggs said. “I get a lot more cloud [coverage] to my side but as far as what I can do it’s just rolling with the punches as far as, if I can put other guys in position to get open or make plays and when my opportunities do come and they crawl up and want to take a chance, we have to take a little bit of a chance.”
Kansas City appeared to focus on slowing Diggs down after Thielen went out by using a safety over the top of every deep route. Diggs still found himself open on several occasions, including a deep shot that came within inches of being a 40-plus yard pass. Diggs said that teams can only put deep safeties over the top if they are stopping the run game.
“As a defense you are trying to keep everything in front of you, you are trying to take away all the big plays and I like big plays, so it’s taking what the defense will give you,” Diggs said. “Just working your way down the field methodically and taking your time, you can’t rush. Eventually they will crawl up, they can’t sit back there all day especially because [Dalvin Cook] is a really, really good running back. You can’t have two safeties back there all day. It’s just part of the game….for me just being prepared for the opportunity [for big plays] when they come. Until then, it’s chip way.”
Kirk Cousins hinted at a potential adjustment if future defenses — including the Cowboys — continue to scheme to take away the deep pass.
“There’s been a little bit of maybe saying ‘we’re going to make you work someone other than Stefon,’ but some of it is ‘let’s not let the big play hurt us,'” Cousins said. “Maybe if we had Stefon with underneath routes he’d get a lot of touches too. I think it’s a combination of factors. We’re going to look for explosive plays whenever we can hit ’em because the numbers suggest whenever you hit them it changes the day for your offense.”
Last year Diggs was largely used on quick screens and underneath routes. That might end up being a goal with Thielen out. They shouldn’t expect to give Diggs just one reception and have a strong day on offense.
Josh Doctson’s potential return
Following his release from Washington, the Vikings signed Josh Docton, who was a first-round pick in 2016. It appeared at the time that he would be a pure deep threat and No. 3 receiver after young receivers failed to emerge during camp. But he got hurt shortly after the Vikings signed him and is just now eligible to get in the fold.
“We talked to him [Cousins] about how he (Doctson) was, and he liked him a lot,” Zimmer said. “He understood the route combinations, and I think they had a good relationship as far as on the field and the things he could do in the passing game.”
Playing with Cousins in 2017, Doctson caught 35 passes for 502 yards and six touchdowns. The Vikings’ quarterback explained Wednesday why he advocated for his ex teammate.
“He’s got a great frame, it’s just a comfort level to throw to when you see a 6-foot-4 guy running down the field and you know you can miss and he will make you right with his size,” Cousins said. “Great speed. Sometimes you get guys who are a little bit bigger and they’re not going to run by people but he showed that he can run by people if they are going to press him.”
If Doctson does return, he could take some of the deep routes designed for Thielen. Per NFLNextGen stats, the average air yards per throw in Doctson’s direction in 2017 was 14.2, which was equal that year with the league’s best deep receiver Julio Jones.
“Ball skills, when the ball is in the air and tracking it, again you don’t have to be perfect because he will adjust,” Cousins said. “He’s another guy who, having started a lot of games, I think there’s still a lot of football there that he hasn’t tapped into because he’s still a young player compared to how much Diggs and Adam have played, he’s still a young player in this league so the more we can get him out there and keep him healthy the more effective he can be.”
Cook, Elliott and running back value
This offseason the battle raged over whether running backs were worth paying, even if they are elite. Ezekiel Elliott sat out training camp and preseason waiting for a new deal and eventually signed a five-year, $90 million contract.
It won’t be long before many of the same conversations are being had with Dalvin Cook, who is a free agent after next season. He was asked about whether running backs are worth paying the same way as other skill positions.
“Running backs are valuable,” Cook said. “They take a lot of beating, everybody is on us when we have the ball and that’s almost every play. It’s a physical position and you want guys to get rewarded for how much they get their body ready each week to take that pounding. The running back value kind of went down but I think it’s as valuable as any position.”
Cook said both he and Elliott will be trying to out-gain each other on Sunday Night Football. Cook currently leads the NFL in rushing — a title that has belonged to Elliott two of the last three years. He will offer a challenge for the Vikings as he averages 4.7 yards per rush and has 24 receptions.
“Zeke has been putting in the work since Day 1 and I think that’s what it all comes down to,” Cook said. “Putting in the work and not looking for a pay day, just looking to get wins and do good things for the organization and it will pay off.”
Dallas is a family matter for Diggs
Stefon Diggs revealed that this game has a little extra importance for him. While he grew up in the D.C. area, the star receiver said that he grew up in somewhat of a Cowboys household. Diggs’ father, who passed away when he was a teenager, was a fan of Dallas.
“Growing up my family was half Cowboys, half Redskins fans, my dad’s side was Dallas and my mom’s side was Redskins,” Diggs said. “You can imagine on Thanksgiving when they used to play every year. My mom will be there, it’s going to be a fun atmosphere.”
“He was just a Cowboys fan, I watched a lot of football a lot of T.O. [Terrell Owens] growing up and Tony Romo, I was there for all the good times and the bad,” Diggs said.
Running out of the shotgun
As the Vikings looked for answers to Kansas City’s interior pressure last week one of the things they did was run out of the shotgun with Cook. It offered a change-up to the under-center running game that they have deployed all season long. In terms of adapting to what defenses are doing, the shotgun run game gives the Vikings another tool in the bag.
Cook explained Wednesday that it’s quite different running from the shotgun.
“It’s totally different how you are getting the ball, you’re getting the ball much quicker so you have to make much quicker decisions,” Cook said. “That backside is not as convenient as when you are under center. When you are under center, you get that backside cut sometimes. I think out of the gun you have to chase it more and pop out of the frontside sometimes. The read becomes different, you track becomes different. You have to speed things up.”
The Vikings haven’t been a shotgun team this season but they were last year but under John DeFilippo last year they spent large chunks of games out of the shotgun and Cook still averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
“Once you get the ball in your hands, it’s up to you to make the decision,” Cook said. “I’m comfortable with both, I don’t have a problem with either one of them. Some guys kind of have set backs when they go under the center, some guys want to be in shotgun more. It’s whatever with me. But I love having that fullback in front of me.”
Mike Hughes and Ifeadi Odenigbo’s progress (and future roles)
Cornerback Mike Hughes has worked in as a rotational corner at both nickel and outside this year since coming back from his ACL injury. He’s taken 91 snaps outside and 129 inside, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think he’s done well. We need to continue to play him,” Zimmer said. “He’s a very diligent kid as far as knowing what to do and understanding his role. But yeah, it’s always hard for a young guy to play a couple different positions, kind of like Ifeadi (Odenigbo). But the more they do it, the better they get at it.”
Odenigbo has taken over a role as a rotational pass rusher. The Vikings have tried Hercules Mata’afa at the three-technique spot on passing downs but had little success. The former seventh-round pick from Northwestern can both play that interior role or fill in for a drive at defensive end.
“He kind of came on at the end of last year a little bit, on the practice squad, and we noticed it,” Zimmer said of Odenigbo’s ascension. “He’s a very violent rusher, plays with a lot of strength and toughness. So initially we wanted to look at him inside at nickel a little bit, then we moved him to end, and we felt like it was just too much at that point in time to do really two jobs. So we backed him down a little bit, and now we’re starting to use him in a couple different things now. “
The Vikings signed Andrew Sendejo back. He was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this week. They waived Marcus Epps, a sixth-round safety from Wyoming.
Anthony Harris has been terrific over the last two years and should still retain the starting job. Sendejo is an insurance policy in case Harris or Harrison Smith gets hurt.