MANKATO – Sam Bradford raised a clenched fist in the air. It was an easy 91-yard touchdown.
The Vikings quarterback had just uncorked a deep play-action pass to Kyle Rudolph, taking advantage of a defense eager to jump a running back on third-and-1 at the 9-yard line.
As soon as Dalvin Cook hit the line without the football, Bradford spotted an open Rudolph. The tight end slipped past safety Harrison Smith when the Pro Bowl safety lurched forward, biting on the fake handoff.
That “explosive play” is something the Vikings didn’t do enough of last season, when a plodding offense ranked 28th in yardage and produced only eight 40-yard pass completions and no 40-yard runs.
“Trying to figure out a way to create more explosive plays,” Bradford said. “That way we’re not having to work so hard every drive. You know — 12-, 13-, 14-play scoring drives where you know if we can have some more explosive plays maybe we can have some shorter scoring drives that will help us.”
On Thursday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer staunchly defended last year’s fifth-ranked scoring defense against the assertion it tailed off during a 3-8 skid. A mostly toothless offense was the larger problem. Big gains dried up while play designs were limited with an injury-riddled offensive line and backfield.
Make no mistake, these Vikings aren’t expected to be the high-octane 1998 version. Swing passes and screens are still common sights under coordinator Pat Shurmur. But they’d at least like to get out of their own way and move forward, especially after the offense committed 54 penalties last year, the 11th-most in the league.
“Explosive plays will come, but the biggest thing for us is it can’t be first-and-20. It can’t be first-and-15,” Rudolph said. “We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and getting behind the chains, or else explosive plays aren’t going to happen because everyone is expecting them.”
Catching the defense by surprise helped Rudolph glide past Smith for the touchdown. Setting up the advantageous third-and-short were two positive plays: a 3-yard run by Cook followed by a 6-yard catch from Stefon Diggs. Shurmur made the deceptive call. Shortly after, Bradford held his fist skyward.
“It was a good play call, honestly,” Smith said. “We should still be able to cover everything no matter what the play call is. That was a good one there.”
Last year’s limitations still hide behind the offseason makeover. The Vikings offensive line could once again find itself shorthanded — and quickly. The two new tackles, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, come with similar scouting reports as sound run blockers and, at times, suspect pass protectors.
The Vikings still see the talent to produce downfield, even if it’s mostly within a controlled, West Coast-style passing attack.
“A lot of it is what the defense is giving you, the protections, and things like that,” Zimmer said. “We always have shots with the deeper throws; it just depends if you can get them off in the game.”
The most heightened expectations come in the run game, where the Vikings need to recharge in the wake of Adrian Peterson’s exit. That’s where Cook comes in, especially while running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon mend injuries.
That home-run power the Vikings desperately need is what Cook often showed at Florida State. The dynamic back has impressed coaches with his footwork and versatility.
A renewed run game would take pressure and defenders away from the passing game — just as Rudolph and Bradford showed in the one practice play. The Vikings should look no farther than last year’s NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, Cook said, pointing to the dynamic two-back system supporting an MVP quarterback.
“You can use Atlanta,” Cook said. “The run opened the passing game, the vertical game up. So I think the rushing in today’s game is very important, because if you can’t run the ball, a team is going to double receivers. If you can run the ball, a team can’t do that. It’s very important for us to run the football this year.”