If the Vikings and Dalvin Cook feel good about the running back’s hamstring after a pregame workout on Sunday, the team plans to put Cook back on the field for the first time since Week 4, playing him for 15-20 snaps on Sunday, as league sources had told the Star Tribune on Friday.
If all goes well on Sunday morning and Cook is indeed on the field against the Detroit Lions, he might help the Vikings as much in the passing game as in the running game.
Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have 181 of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 334 targets this season, taking up an outsize portion of the work in an offense that’s thrown the ball more than any in the league this season. With Diggs’ status in doubt because of a rib injury that kept him out of practice all week and led the Vikings to call Chad Beebe up from the practice squad on Saturday, the team could have to rely on a larger group of options to complement Thielen. That’s where Cook could come in.
While the running back has struggled to find running room behind the Vikings’ offensive line this season, carrying just 36 times for 98 yards, he’s been more productive as a receiver, catching nine passes for 107 yards. The Vikings will have to shift their line again on Sunday, with Tom Compton out because of a sprained knee, and Latavius Murray has shown himself to be a good fit with many of the Vikings’ inside zone runs in recent weeks. If the Vikings want to make the most of Cook in a limited dose of work on Sunday, it very well could be by getting him the ball on screen passes or throws to the perimeter.
“I don't know how much it's the running game or passing game,” coach Mike Zimmer said on Friday. “Just overall, I think he will help us.”
The Vikings have put Cook through a wide range of treatment options in recent weeks, and though the running back said on Thursday he’s feeling like himself again, he won’t have a complete idea of how healthy he is until he gets into a game. If the Vikings’ plan holds and Cook is able to go, his return could come at a good time.
Here are some other notes and thoughts as the Vikings prepare to face the Lions on Sunday:
2. Diggs’ absence on Sunday wouldmark the latest point in the wide receiver’s career he’s missed a game. He didn’t play the first three weeks of his rookie season, before Charles Johnson’s broken ribs opened up a spot for him. He sat out in Week 5 of the 2016 season because of a groin injury and first missed a game in Week 6 because of a groin injury last season. Diggs has 58 catches through eight games; if he’s back after the Vikings’ bye week, he could still have a solid chance to post his first 100-catch season.
3.With Andrew Sendejo expected to return from a groin injury on Sunday, the Vikings should have five healthy safeties against the Lions: Harrison Smith, Sendejo, Jayron Kearse, Anthony Harris and George Iloka. They’ve given larger roles to Kearse and Iloka through their big nickel package, and used Harris for most of the game after Iloka was benched after five snaps following a mistake in coverage last week against the Saints. The Vikings could turn to their three-safety look frequently, to help deal with Kerryon Johnson with Anthony Barr out, but even so, it will be interesting to see if they have all five safeties active for Sunday’s game.
4.The Vikings’ revolving door at kick returner could continue on Sunday, with Roc Thomas out because of a hamstring injury. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer put Marcus Sherels on kick returns after Thomas was injured last week, and Sherels could work there again against the Lions. Priefer also said he’s comfortable with Holton Hill and Brandon Zylstra on kick returns (though Zylstra could see a larger role at wide receiver on Sunday in light of Diggs’ injury, as Aldrick Robinson mentioned on Friday). In any case, it’s been a new challenge for Priefer after years of Pro Bowl return men.
“When I got here, Percy [Harvin] was the guy,” Priefer said. “When he was being used heavily on offense, I couldn't use him as much. I think he only had 16 returns that first year I was here but he was still very effective. Cordarrelle [Patterson] wasn't used as much so obviously, we used him on every rep when he was a healthy guy. I think with the injuries and the way guys are being used on offense and defense, it's been a little bit of a challenge. That is what I do. I think that is what we do on special teams. We have to get all of those young guys ready.”
5.When the NFL changed its touchback rules before the 2016 season, moving the ball from the 20-yard line to the 25 after touchbacks, Priefer had said the Vikings would continue to be aggressive about bringing the ball out of the end zone. Now that Patterson has moved on, the Vikings have a rotating cast of return men — and teams have gotten better at limiting long kick returns — the calculus on bringing the ball out of the end zone has changed.
“I think when you have a guy like Cordarrelle that can break one — I mean, he did against Chicago a couple weeks ago [for the Patriots],” Priefer said. “He's always a danger to break one. Other teams that have these big-time returners are still taking it out of the end zone and there is a risk-reward. You might get one to the 45 but you're going to get four or five tackles inside the 20.
Our mentality here is that we're going to be more on the conservative side. Let's take the the field position. We've got a really good offense, we've got a great quarterback; let's put the ball at the 25 and let’s go. Where in years past, we weren't as strong on offense, we were trying to make a big play with our return game, so I think it depends on the team you have, it depends on the returner you have, depends on who you're playing, who your opponent is, how well they cover, how great the kicker is -– if he line drives one five [yards] deep or does he put it at a 4.3 hang time five deep? That all comes into play.”
6.When the Vikings played the Lions on Thanksgiving Day last year, they left the game irate about the way Detroit had handled long snapper Kevin McDermott while blocking a field goal and an extra point. Rules prohibit teams hitting a long snapper in the head or neck, but the Lions weren’t called for those types of hits on McDermott.
“I think we just have to remind the officials to look for it,” Priefer said. “That's what they [the Lions] do. They've already been called for it this year; it's kind of their M.O. It's not going to be called every time, so I'm not going to rely on the officials making that difficult call. That's a hard call for make for those guys. We got to do a better job protecting, there's no excuses. I'm not making excuses for last year at all. We have to do a better job of protecting, and understand that that's what they're going to do. We need to do a better job of protecting our center, protecting our launch point and making sure we get the ball up in the air with good timing. It's timing and elevation for the kicker, and we got to make those kicks.”
It’s worth noting that Lions special teams coordinator Joe Marciano, who’d been with the Texans from 2002-13, got back into the league by serving as the Vikings’ interim special teams coordinator while Priefer was suspended at the beginning of the 2014 season, before the Lions hired him in 2015. The Vikings, in other words, should be plenty familiar with the approach of Marciano’s group on special teams.
7.Safety Harrison Smith, who’s already got three sacks and three interceptions this season, is the first NFL player to reach that threshold since Landon Collins and Ryan Shazier both did it in 2016. Smith has already pulled off the feat once in his career, finishing tied for third in the league with five interceptions in 2014 and posting three sacks that year.
8.As the Vikings’ mid-week notes package suggested this week, it’s long been time to stop marveling at Adam Thielen’s performance with a sense of disbelief that a Division II wideout can be this productive. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2016, Thielen ranks fifth in the NFL in catches, third in yards, fourth in receptions for 20 yards or more, sixth in first downs, first in third-down receptions and second in the number of first downs gained off third-down receptions.
The receivers in the same company with Thielen are the names you’d expect: Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans and Larry Fitzgerald.
9.Former Lions linebacker Chris Spielman, who worked the Vikings’ game against the Jets for Fox two weeks ago, will be in the broadcast booth again on Sunday, providing color commentary as his former team takes on the franchise run by his brother, Vikings GM Rick Spielman.
10.How rare is the Lions’ recent success in Minnesota? Detroit, which has won three of four games in Minnesota during Mike Zimmer’s tenure and is the only NFC North team to win at U.S. Bank Stadium, had won just once in the Twin Cities before that in the 21st century. That victory came in 2011, when the Lions won 26-23 in overtime against a Vikings team that finished 3-13. Before that, the Lions hadn’t won in Minneapolis since 1997.