EAGAN — The goal of any opponent that goes up against the Minnesota Vikings is going to be slowing down Dalvin Cook. But the Vikings’ performance in New Orleans showed that the combination of a clever tactical game and Cook’s skill can be extremely hard to stop. And if the Vikings continue to succeed on the ground against San Francisco, they can control the clock, force opponents to pay even more attention to the backfield and have a good chance to move on in the playoffs.
The Vikings finished Sunday’s 26-20 win with 40 rushes for for 136 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. They held the ball for 36;56 against the Saints and used play-action to set up a 43-yard pass to Adam Thielen that put them in position to win.
How were the Vikings able to rush successfully against an opponent that was giving up the fourth fewest yards on the ground? How can they do it again? Let’s have a look…
Cook’s pure talent
Everything begins with the player in the backfield.
Sometimes the number of talented running backs in the NFL is mistaken with any old football player being able to suit up and rush for 100 yards. Of his 94 yards on Sunday, 65 of Cook’s rushing total came after contact.
His ability to spot holes and make decisions at lightning speed showed up on the very first play from scrimmage.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski dialed up a crack-back block from rookie tight end Irv Smith, who had a strong game as a blocker. He came underneath the formation, allowing right tackle Brian O’Neill to get up to the second level and Smith to take the defensive end. The center and guard double teamed the nose tackle and Cook sold that he was running to his left.
Linebacker DeMario Davis bit on the run left and Cook cut back into a hole and broke a tackle for a 7-yard gain.
“Having a feel and trusting your instincts and eyes,” Cook said on Tuesday. “Watching the film, practicing hard during the week to put myself in positions to know you have to just trust to hit [the hole] and go with it. That’s what I do come Sundays. I don’t think I just react.”
While receiver Adam Thielen fumbled on the first drive and gave the ball to the Saints, the first run from scrimmage showed the Saints that Cook had his burst back. He sat the final two weeks of the season to recover from chest and shoulder issues.
When he was fully healthy early in the year, Cook was in the mix for MVP. Through the first nine weeks he ranked No. 1 in yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. On Sunday he looked much closer to that version than the one we saw toward the end of the year against Seattle and Los Angeles.
Formations and motions
There are some teams that like to play one type of personnel group and make it difficult for opponents to predict run vs. pass. The Vikings have a different strategy: They use all sorts of different personnel groups and formations.
Against the Saints we saw runs out of everything from 13 personnel (three tight ends) to 11 personnel (three receivers). And out of those multiple looks, they used motions to force the Saints’ defense to adjust right before the snap.
The clip below includes eight men on the line of scrimmage, three of which are tight ends. When Cam Jordan lines up outside against tackle Riley Reiff, they send Smith in motion and then pitch to the weak side.
Below are other examples of using unique formations, a mix of personnel groups and motions.
In Clip 1, Cook picks up big yards on an outside pitch out of 12 personnel (two tight ends). Receiver Stefon Diggs run “jet motion,” which means the snap comes when he’s behind the quarterback, giving the defense the idea that he might be running a sweep. While Diggs did not have success running the ball against the Saints, they gave it to him just enough for the Saints to have to respect the possibility.
Clip 2: The same motion is used out of 11 personnel at the goal line for Cook’s easy touchdown run. Notice the linebacker running almost out to the numbers tracking. Diggs while the running back walks through a gigantic opening.
Clip 3: Adam Thielen lines up in the backfield and fullback CJ Ham at outside receiver. Notice the safety go away from the play to chase Thielen at the snap. Also putting the fullback outside takes the Saints’ best linebacker with him out of the box and gives the Vikings a 3-on-2 matchup of linemen to box defenders on the outside rush.
The Vikings threw the kitchen sink at the Saints knowing that they would have to keep Drew Brees off the field and make New Orleans stop their best player.
Facing the 49ers
The plan on the ground is to take advantage of seven-man boxes, manipulate linebackers with motions and force the opponent to adapt personnel. The only way to blow up that plan on defense is with a monstrous performance from the front four. San Francisco has the personnel to do it.
“We know the challenge that they present up front,” Cook said. “They have a good front-seven, probably the best we’re going to face all year. This is a playoff game. We know what we’re getting ourselves into. We just have to go in and stay on schedule and that’s running the football and doing what we do.”
Overall PFF graded them the 11th best defense against the run (New Orleans was fourth) and statistically speaking they gave up the 17th most yards and ranked 23rd in yards per carry.
The door is open for Cook and the Vikings to continue to control the game on the ground, keep Kyle Shanahan’s offense off the field and look for deep shots in the play-action game.
That is not only a testament to Cook’s special ability to find holes and break tackles but the Vikings’ attention to detail in the run game.