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Zulgad: No worries: Vikings are in no rush to lighten Dalvin Cook’s heavy workload

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Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs past teammate Chad Beebe (12) as Chicago Bears cornerback Buster Skrine, front right, defends during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Dalvin Cook had rushed for 65 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown and caught four passes for 29 yards to help the Vikings take a 13-0 halftime lead in their Week 5 game at Seattle. But whatever hope the 1-3 team had for turning around its season appeared to be lost when the running back came up hobbling after catching a Kirk Cousins pass on the Vikings’ first play from scrimmage in the third quarter.

Cook attempted to return for one more play but had trouble moving. Alexander Mattison replaced him, failed to get a yard on a fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks’ 6-yard line with his team leading late in the fourth quarter and quarterback Russell Wilson led Seattle on a 94-yard game-winning drive.

Cook did not play in the Vikings’ 40-23 loss the following Sunday to previously winless Atlanta at U.S. Bank Stadium and Minnesota entered its bye week with a 1-5 record and little hope for recovery. Cook, a second-round pick in 2017, had missed 12 games in his rookie season because of a torn ACL, five games in his second year because of a hamstring issue and two games last year because of a chest injury that also limited him in other late-season games.

The question was how much time would Cook’s latest injury, a groin issue, keep him out? While some of us were expecting Cook to potentially miss substantial playing time, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak were devising a plan to increase Cook’s role in the offense.

Three games later, it has gone better than Zimmer or Kubiak could have expected.

The Vikings have used the Dalvin Plan to get their season back on track, beating NFC North rivals Green Bay (28-22), Detroit (34-20) and Chicago (19-13). Minnesota has a realistic path to extending its winning streak to six with upcoming home games against Dallas, Carolina and Jacksonville. Those three teams are a combined 6-22.

Cook’s workload and production were significant in the four games before he was injured. Signed to a five-year, $63 million extension just before the season, he was averaging 20.8 touches per game, rushing for 489 yards on 92 carries (5.3 yards per carry) with seven touchdowns and catching 12 passes for 64 yards.

But in the three games since the bye, Cook has touched the ball an average of 30, yes, 30, times per game. He has gained 465 yards on 82 carries with five touchdowns and caught eight passes for 125 yards and another score. He ran for 163 yards on 30 carries and three touchdowns and caught two passes for 63 yards and TD in the victory over Green Bay. The 32 touches were a career high. Cook exceeded that number on Monday night at Soldier Field, gaining 96 yards on 30 rushing attempts and gaining 16 yards on four receptions.

Cook’s 3.2-yard rushing average might not have been impressive, but what did impress was Kubiak’s willingness to stick with the run against a Bears defense that was focused on not letting Cook beat them. The Bears punished Cook plenty of times but each time he got up. There was one scary moment in the second half where Cook stayed down and had to leave for a play, but it turned out he had fumbled the ball near the end of his carry and the football hit him in a sensitive area as he fell.

Cook has touched the ball 194 times this season, putting him behind only Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (212 touches) and Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs (205) among NFL running backs. Henry and Jacobs have played in nine games apiece, while Cook is at eight (or 7.5, really, since he missed time against Seattle). Cook also leads the NFL in rushing with 954 yards, a 5.5-yard average, and 12 touchdowns. That is 8 more yards than Henry, who has 27 more carries.

Making Cook the centerpiece of the Vikings’ offense clearly makes everyone better, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, but the question is whether Zimmer and Kubiak can continue to use Cook this much and keep him healthy? The comeback to that: Can they afford to cut back on Cook’s carries and touches?

“My body feels good after that one,” Cook said Wednesday. “I’m ready to play another one. … You stay in your routine, get your mind back ready to go. With me, it’s about getting my body back in line to take those touches. I know mentally I’m there, I’m checked in, I’m ready to go and that’s just about getting my body ready to go. But I can take (the reps) because I’m ready.”

As long as that remains the case, the once struggling Vikings have a chance to remain in the playoff race.

“I think a lot of that depends on Dalvin, as we continue to move forward,” Zimmer said of Cook’s workload. “We take pretty good care of him during the week, each situation is a little bit different. Last week (against the Bears) was a little bit more of a physicality of game, with the front that they had. We’ll continue to look at all those things and look to get Alexander in there a little bit more. But when the game gets on the line, in situations like that, he doesn’t want to not be out there with his guys. … When I say a lot of it depends on him, it does.”