Tight ends David Morgan and Tyler Conklin, two young blue-collar grunts dressing quietly in the shadow of captain Kyle Rudolph’s postgame interview scrum, were discussing what was perhaps the best play call of Kevin Stefanski’s one-game career as offensive coordinator.
The Vikings faced third-and-1 from their 36 while holding a nervous 24-17 lead late in the third quarter of Sunday’s 41-17 win over the Dolphins at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I bet nobody thought we’d pass there, huh?” Morgan said.
You got that right, bub.
Everyone knows how determined old-school coach Mike Zimmer is to run the football. So determined that he fired new-school offensive coordinator John DeFilippo six days earlier in part because of two final-straw third-and-1 passes he called that failed in the loss at Seattle.
The Vikings probably could have run the ball in that situation. After all, they were playing the 29th-ranked run defense and a team that looked disinterested until quarterback Kirk Cousins woke them up with the year’s third pick-six while leading 21-0 early in the second quarter.
It also helped that Morgan returned after missing four games because of a knee injury. Two of his key blocks sealed the edge of the line and allowed Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray to cut back and score on runs of 13 and 18 yards for that 21-0 lead.
“That’s my guy right there,” said Cook, who had 136 of the Vikings’ 220 yards rushing, the most since they had 263 at Oakland in 2015.
“Dave does the dirty work. No complaining. He’s just that type of guy. A hard-nosed, tough guy. To get him back was important to the things we want to do.”
You won’t find Morgan in the boxscore. The 2016 sixth-round pick didn’t catch a pass. And he wasn’t targeted.
But Conklin, the rookie fifth-round pick, had a game-high 53 yards on two catches.
So, Dave, what did you think of Tyler’s 33-yarder from the two-tight end formation that had you standing over on the sideline?
“I think it stinks,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “I’m going to have to fine the rookie.”
But seriously, folks ...
“It was great because running the ball has been our M.O. lately,” Morgan said. “Everyone knows how determined we’ve been to run it. We showed what we’re capable of.”
And then they mixed in a play-action pass to Conklin from a power formation. After running the ball straight ahead on three earlier plays on third-and-1 and second-and-1.
“It’s something we practiced all week,” Conklin said. “I just had to navigate the linebacker filling [the gap]. No one followed me out and I was just wide open thinking, ‘Got to catch it.’ It worked out perfectly.”
And it was a big play that regained momentum that never should have been lost. Six snaps later, a 34-yard field goal gave the Vikings a 10-point lead, settled down the offense and stoked the defense even more.
Zimmer can hear the play calls on the headset. He didn’t step in when a pass was called.
“We had, I won’t say how many [plays], but we had some [options],” he said. “They were kind of debating between that pass and another type of run. I think everybody felt like the defense they were in, that would probably be open.”
Somewhere, DeFilippo had to be shaking his head at the timing of his ouster. He gets a four-week stretch that includes road games at Chicago, at New England and at Seattle. And Stefanski gets a flat Dolphins team at home.
Calling third-and-1 this week wasn’t the same as calling third-and-1 on Monday night in Seattle, Sunday night in Chicago or late afternoon in Foxboro.
“It does help that we ran the ball so well today,” Conklin said. “My catch was just playing off Cook running his tail off. You run the ball for 200 yards, it’s easy to run play-action and throw the ball.”
The play-calling was strong. The execution was stronger. But the opponent was neither.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org