The morning after each Vikings game, beat writer Ben Goessling dives in for a deeper look at a key aspect of how the Vikings played, and what it means for the team going forward:
As the Vikings prepared to part with running back Dalvin Cook for the season last week, following the news the rookie had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the question quickly shifted to how, and how effectively, the team could replace Cook’s ability to create big plays.
He had posted four runs of 20 yards or more in his first four games, for a team that had just six all of last season, and had a 36-yard gain off a reception, too. What’s more, Cook had helped the Vikings push the ball downfield off play action, when defenses started to bring another safety toward the line of scrimmage and they were able to exploit teams with one safety deep in coverage.
The Vikings’ downfield passing game has dried up a bit in the last two weeks, against a pair of NFC North teams that often force opponents to string together long drives, but they found another solution to their need for big plays: Jerick McKinnon.
The fourth-year running back had 146 combined rushing and receiving yards on Monday night, posting the second-most yards from scrimmage he’d ever totaled in a game. The only time McKinnon was better was all the way back on Sept. 28, 2014, when he posted 152 yards as a rookie while defenses were still trying to figure out the former college quarterback’s running style.
McKinnon’s ability to break big plays has been sporadic at best throughout his career, but on Monday night, behind a wall of blocks from Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen, Michael Floyd, Mike Remmers and Nick Easton, McKinnon followed center Pat Elflein into a hole and shot downfield for a 58-yard touchdown, gaining 48 yards before he was touched.
“Nick Easton had a great block,” McKinnon said. “[Laquon] Treadwell had a real key block; he came off the backside. It was a real collective effort, and I think it kind of got the momentum going.”
It remains to be seen whether McKinnon can create big chunks of yardage on a regular basis, but credit should be given to what the Vikings did to set up his long run on Monday night. They made effective use of a hurry-up offense to sow confusion in a Bears defense that was missing two starting linebackers on Monday night, and their convoy for McKinnon, on the toss sweep play, would have been good enough to open space against many teams. The Vikings will face the NFL’s 22nd-ranked run defense on Sunday when the Packers come to U.S. Bank Stadium, and they’ll see a Ravens club ranked 23rd against the run the following Sunday.
“When you can run the football, it makes it tough [for defenses],” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Defenses start loading up, and you get a chance to throw the ball some. Play-actions were better; we had a couple boot[leg]s in there that we hit for first downs. I think all those things are important. I was nervous about being able to run the football against this front, and I’m glad we were able to get some of it done.”
The Vikings’ uncertainty at quarterback will continue into this week, after Sam Bradford aggravated his left knee on Monday night, and the next two pass defenses the Vikings face are ranked in the NFL’s top 10 (though Packers defensive backs Morgan Burnett and Kevin King both left Sunday’s game against the Cowboys). If the Vikings’ deep passing game is going to have a slightly harder time finding room to work, as it has the past two weeks, it helps to get big plays from the running game. McKinnon provided an important one on Monday night.