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How Case Keenum's career day buried the Bucs

Many hands helped propel Case Keenum to a career game in Sunday's 34-17 win against the Buccaneers, but Adam Thielen's left mitt got a lot of the credit from the Vikings quarterback.

"I think the shot early to Adam kind of calmed me down a little bit," Keenum said. "He made a heck of a play" on a one-handed catch.

The Vikings entered Sunday with a game plan still centered on running back Dalvin Cook, who took six carries in the first eight plays. But, after an uninspiring attack in Pittsburgh, a more comfortable Keenum pushed the ball downfield starting with the third play of the game – the 45-yard strike to Thielen that further settled Keenum's nerves after a full week of practice in the starting huddle.

"A lot of it had to do with the timing of when [Keenum] knew he was going to play, changing the plan," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think he was confident going in, felt good about the plays and then you have to give all the guys some credit. They executed. The offensive line, we ran the ball well. Cook had some really good runs, the offensive line blocked, protected well."

Let's take a look at four examples of Keenum's career day, a driving element to the Vikings' win vs. Tampa Bay. Here to help is Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @Dan_Hatman.

Fullback C.J. Ham's career-high 22 snaps came Sunday in a plan centered on feeding Cook and building off that with play-action passes. The first three plays, leading to the opening touchdown, exemplified that approach. Cook picked up 10 yards on two carries. Then Ham, as the lead blocker, fronted a fake handoff on the third snap. From a remarkably clean pocket, Keenum's "excellent" ball placement on his first throw of the game allowed Thielen to make an impressive grab, despite illegal contact from the defender.

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"Hargreaves gives himself a big cushion," Hatman said. "[Thielen] clearly gets a step. Full slide protection with [Ham] coming across the formation to pick up anything that leaks. The ball placement is excellent, catching Thielen in stride on his upfield shoulder, so the DBs never have a chance. Thielen tracks it well and secures the catch over his shoulder, in stride, which is not easy to do. Contact was made prior to the ball reaching Thielen."

Keenum's second throw was boosted by his coverage recognition and Pat Shurmur’s play design. Three Vikings receivers (underlined) draw attention on the open side of the field. You'll see in the video below, Cook motions out and back in to help identify apparent zone coverage, which means the Bucs corner (circled) has to make a choice on the two routes coming at him from Cook (33) and Rudolph (82). This 16-yard pass to Cook sets up the rookie's first NFL touchdown.

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"Cook motions back in, which helps diagnose coverage," Hatman said. "Looks like a constraint situation on the cornerback. If he stays wide with Cook, then Rudolph should have room. If he condenses on Rudolph (which he does here), then Cook is open. Cook runs straight to the pylon and picks up a big chunk."

Pocket presence was a focus for Keenum after he shuffled into danger too much in Pittsburgh. Improved awareness from Keenum, and a big block from Cook in pass protection, allow Stefon Diggs to make another impressive catch from a Vikings receiver. This 17-yard strike to Diggs put the Vikings in Buccaneers territory, where they would take a 14-3 lead with a second touchdown.

Keenum stared Gerald McCoy in the face within a couple seconds. Rudolph was seemingly given the tough assignment of blocking down on the Bucs defensive tackle and got some help from Cook.

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"Seven in the protection as Rudolph and Cook get involved. Berger looks to be executing a pop-out technique with Rudolph folding in to replace and Cook picking leakage," Hatman said. "Keenum looked very poised in the pocket as McCoy quickly penetrated. Keenum trusted Cook to do his job, slid in the pocket and bought time to get the ball to Diggs, who did an excellent job scraping that throw off the turf."

Watch this critical third-and-7 down carefully. As Hatman explains, Keenum audibles into this 19-yard throw to Thielen after identifying a slot corner blitz from the Buccaneers. Left tackle Riley Reiff and left guard Nick Easton are aggressive and attack in their pass sets against the blitz. Thielen wins the one-on-one matchup, which he's done throughout this young season, and makes another solid catch near the sideline.

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"Again, Tampa brings their safeties down, this time to disguise that the nickel is blitzing and Conte will be in man coverage vs. Thielen," Hatman said. "Tampa does not hold the disguise well and when the nickel shows his cards, and the safety rotated over, Keenum calls an audible. Thielen does a little bit with his stem to signal in in-breaking route. Conte bites, and Thielen is wide open for the completion."

Cook is total package for Vikings through three weeks

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) during a run in the fourth quarter. Carlos Gonzalez photo.

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 of Monday morning, Dalvin Cook was the NFL’s second-leading rusher. He had eclipsed Adrian Peterson’s team record for the most rushing yards in the first three games of his career. And it was difficult to imagine a Vikings running back playing a more complete game than the one Cook turned in on Sunday afternoon.

Carrying 27 times for 97 yards, Cook did much of his work gaining yards after he’d already been hit. According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged 3.04 yards per attempt after first contact; in other words, he gained 82 of his 97 yards after he’d already been hit once. He slipped two ankle tackles on his 26-yard run in the third quarter, carrying safety T.J. Ward for nine yards at the end of the play and gaining 24 of his yards after contact on the run.

He made a major impact in two other areas of the game, too. After spending part of his pregame warmup catching passes from running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, Cook caught five passes for 72 yards without any of the pesky drops that dogged him during the first two games of the season. His first catch, on a flare out of the backfield, was a 16-yard gain that set up his first NFL touchdown. His last of the day was a short pass from Keenum off a bootleg on 3rd-and-2, which Cook turned into a 36-yard gain that helped put the Vikings in position to run out the clock. For the day, Cook caused two missed tackles on receptions, in addition to six on runs, according to Pro Football Focus.

And as a blocking back, the rookie was also impressive. He lined up in the I formation on Keenum’s second touchdown pass, picking up a free rusher as the Buccaneers sent five defenders after the quarterback and giving Keenum time to roll out and hit Jarius Wright. For the day, Cook allowed only one pressure in eight pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and has given up just three total pressures in 19 snaps of pass protection for the year.

Whatever plans the Vikings had for a shared backfield appear to be in hock for now, as Cook has logged the second-most carries in the league through three games and has 74.3 percent of the team’s rushing attempts for the season (not counting a combined five kneeldowns from Keenum and Sam Bradford). Jerick McKinnon has only eight carries for the season and Latavius Murray has just seven, as the Vikings have let Cook touch the ball on 71 of their 202 offensive plays. That’s a Peterson-like 35.1 percent of the Vikings’ plays (though Cook is getting his touches in two ways, not just one), and it will be interesting to see if the Vikings look to curb some of the running back’s touches throughout the season, in an effort to keep him fresh for a second-half schedule stocked with road games.

For now, though, there’s no reason Cook shouldn’t be called a featured back — especially since he’s making himself an integral piece of just about every piece of the Vikings’ offense. His performance on Sunday showed he’s going to be hard for the Vikings to take off the field.

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