After Adam Thielen sustained a right hamstring injury while stretching out for a 25-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of Sunday’s win over the Lions, the Vikings got a chance to see how resourceful their passing game could be without the two-time Pro Bowler.
They’ll likely have to lean on that resourcefulness for at least one game. While an MRI on Monday showed Thielen’s hamstring injury isn’t serious, according to a league source, it’s unlikely the Vikings will have Thielen for Thursday night’s game against the Redskins. Missing the game would end Thielen’s streak of 87 consecutive starts, but it would also allow him to curb what’s believed to be a mild hamstring injury before it turns serious.
The wide receiver’s absence would force the Vikings to rework their approach against a Redskins defense that’s been tougher to throw against than most teams the Vikings have faced. Washington ranks 12th in the NFL in passing yards allowed through seven games (though both Carson Wentz and Tom Brady surpassed 300 yards against them). With Thielen out, the Vikings would likely turn to rookie Bisi Johnson again after he played 52 of the team’s 73 snaps and caught four passes for 40 yards, including his first NFL touchdown.
“It felt really good,” Johnson said of being targeted eight times on Sunday. “That just shows how much confidence the coaches have in me, and how much confidence [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] obviously has in me. I can go out there and make plays all the time. That’s what I’m here for; that’s why I’m here. I’m here to make plays, and I’ll do just that.”
Cousins connected with seven different receivers on Sunday, with all eight of Johnson’s targets coming after Thielen left the game following the Vikings’ second series. The Vikings were helped by another big day for Stefon Diggs, who caught seven passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
The Vikings continued to morph into one of the NFL’s most prolific downfield passing attacks largely because of deep shots off play-action.
They have the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense, which accounted for another 166 yards Sunday and has posted 1,120 through seven games after totaling just 1,493 all of last season. The offensive line had just its second game without allowing a sack since 2017 on Sunday.
“It’s a big deal,” Cousins said of the running game. “Not only the play-action game, but you’re calling a first-and-10 run and the next thing you know it’s second-and-3, that just keeps your whole playbook available to you. If you get a second-and-10, now their defense can call more prevent coverages that if you do want to take a shot, then it’s not going to be there.
“The key is staying ahead of the chains where they have to call defenses that load the box, so that we can take shots and be successful. It’s so key over and over again to even stay out of third downs. We’re not having to convert five or six on a drive because we’re going first, second down, first, second down, first, second down — that’s a big deal.”
Cousins averaged 9.3 air yards per completion Sunday. He completed three of his seven passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, hitting Thielen for an early 25-yard touchdown and finding Diggs for 66 yards off play-action to effectively put the game away.
Thielen said after Sunday’s game he was optimistic about playing Thursday night, and he’s dealt with minor hamstring issues before. But the Vikings were particularly wary of hamstring injuries after the 2018 season, when their decision to bring Dalvin Cook back two weeks after an injury in Green Bay led to him missing another four games as the Vikings toyed with the idea of bringing him back on a limited basis. Given that the Vikings have difficult back-to-back road games in Kansas City and Dallas after facing the 1-6 Redskins on Thursday night at home, a cautious approach with Thielen might make sense during a short week.
Johnson, Diggs and Laquon Treadwell were the Vikings’ only active receivers once Thielen left the game Sunday, and the Vikings could look to bring one of their practice squad receivers — Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis or Alexander Hollins — up to the 53-man roster before Thursday’s game. They also could resort to the approach they took Sunday, when each of their three tight ends played at least 27 snaps and the Vikings lined up tight end Irv Smith Jr. and fullback C.J. Ham on the outsides of formations, either in an effort to get them the ball or pull defenders out of the box with them.
“It’s all the same thing,” said Ham, who had his first receiving touchdown Sunday. “If they line me up at tight end or wide receiver, I still have a job to do. It’s spelled out for me, and I just have to go out there and get it done.”