After losing in Kansas City behind a poor showing from Kirk Cousins and Co., Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski dialed up a gem in Dallas, setting up the offense for a brilliant bounce-back performance — and with that, keeping the Vikings a leg up in the race for a wild card spot or division title.
It has often been said that you can tell early on in a big game whether Cousins is going to be on his game or not. On the opening drive, Stefanski refused to allow Cousins an opportunity to have early jitters. The Vikings opened with a run by Dalvin Cook and then went right back to the superstar running back with a quick pass for 12 yards. On the following play, Cousins went right back to Cook for another 27-yard gain on a clever play design that had the Dallas Cowboys defense in disarray.
Two plays later, Cousins ran a bootleg and found Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone for a one-handed touchdown catch.
The first drive showed the Cowboys exactly what the Vikings’ plans were for the night: Play-actions, bootlegs and screens to Cook. But they couldn’t stop it.
The following drive went 90 yards for a touchdown. It featured a 30-yard gain on a throw to Cook and four third-down conversions, including another 1-yard touchdown to Rudolph.
When the Vikings have been at their best this season they have found ways to create personnel mismatches. They did so effectively on Sunday night. In the past linebacker Sean Lee was one of the best at his position in the league but not anymore. The Vikings used big personnel packages with extra tight ends and fullback CJ Ham to keep Lee on the field all night.
While many teams around the league have gone away from the fullback, the Vikings used Ham all night. NBC Broadcaster Cris Collinsworth pointed out repeatedly the way Ham was used on outside runs to create gaping holes for Cook to run through.
Stefanski found ways to enhance Cousins’ abilities but he still needed the Vikings’ QB to make plays — and that he did. As the Vikings drove at the end of the half, Cousins heaved a ball down the sideline, which Stefon Diggs grabbed while falling to the ground. He then hit tight end Irv Smith twice to set up an easy score.
To start the second half, Cousins led another long field goal drive, going 12 plays for 66 yards. It was helped by a 23-yard run by Cook.
Most opponents have gameplanned to stop Cook and the Cowboys were no different but Stefanski stuck with Cook throughout the entire game, even on fourth-and-1 at the goal line to go ahead by a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Stefanski went back to Rudolph again to secure the two-point conversion — which later played a huge role in the result as the Cowboys were forced to go for a fourth down at the end of the game.
Sometimes the genius is going with the most obvious strategy. For the Vikings’ first-year OC, that was making sure his best player was used over and over and over. He finished with 32 touches for 186 yards from scrimmage.
When the Vikings got the ball back with just over 10 minutes to go with a four-point lead they didn’t get cute. Cook got the ball repeatedly, either behind an extra tight end or his fullback. You might have called it “old school” in years past but with Cook playing like an MVP it was simply the smartest way to go about it. They took over five minutes off the clock, leaving the Cowboys in need of a 95-yard drive to tie.
The Vikings needed every button Stefanski pushed to work since the defense could not handle Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense. Prescott threw for 397 yards and answered nearly every Vikings score until the end when Eric Kendricks knocked away a fourth down throw inside the 20 yard line.
It’s been clear this season that the Vikings can’t win like they have in the past — or the way that Mike Zimmer would prefer. They can’t rest on their defense to bail them out at every turn. Now they have to ask Stefanski to find the best ways to use Cousins and Cook.
On Sunday they did so and came out with a huge jump in their playoff odds. He will certainly have to do more in order to earn a job but this might be the game that other franchises remember when they come calling to interview Stefanski for head coaching gigs this upcoming offseason.