After Kirk Cousins’ impressive drive with the Vikings offense, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown throw to Stefon Diggs on Saturday in Denver, a premier Broncos defender had one critique of his sliced-and-diced group.
“Stopping the run,” outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, the Broncos’ fifth overall draft pick, said to reporters after the game.
The Vikings’ run game, which ranked seventh last season, showed no signs of slowing down despite missing Dalvin Cook and the three-man interior of the offensive line. Two snaps, ever the small sample size, were the most encouraging sign from the Vikings preseason opener. Running back Latavius Murray gained 41 of his 43 rushing yards on back-to-back plays that put Cousins in Broncos territory before he ever threw a deep pass in purple.
Aggressive play from the improvised offensive line was a driving force, according to head coach Mike Zimmer. That’s crucial since the Vikings lined up without starting center Pat Elflein, right guard Mike Remmers and left guard Nick Easton, who was placed on injured reserve Monday following neck surgery.
“The thing I was probably most impressed with is the way we came off the ball with our offensive line,” Zimmer said Monday. “I thought we were physical up front.”
Both runs — 21-yard and 20-yard bursts off the right side — went through wide-open gaps in the defense. Center Cornelius Edison quickly slid off double-team blocks to get hands on a linebacker each time.
All while the Vikings ran directly at Broncos’ run-stuffing tackle Derek Wolfe.
First, tight end David Morgan’s block sealed Wolfe on the inside of Murray’s 21-yard burst between Morgan and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Then Murray sped past Wolfe with an inside cut just as right guard Danny Isidora was being driven into the backfield.
“I think anybody could’ve ran through the holes I had,” Murray said. “Credit goes out to them.”
The Vikings offense relied more on the run last season than realized.
During the magical trip to the NFC Championship Game, only the Jacksonville Jaguars (527 carries) ran the ball more than the Vikings (501). That’s not expected to change much, even after the Vikings gave a record $84 million guaranteed to Cousins this offseason.
Because like Case Keenum, Cousins has thrived off play-action handoffs.
Only five quarterbacks performed better on play-action plays than Keenum last season; one was Cousins in Washington, with a 118.7 passer rating on 112 attempts. After the game on Saturday night, Cousins said he “could not believe” the back-to-back explosive runs by Murray.
Those kinds of plays are buoys for quarterbacks. Especially on second-and-long, when Murray broke the 21-yard run. Vikings backs are taught to target “efficient runs,” meaning to gain at least 4 yards on first down, half the yardage remaining on second downs and convert third downs.
So Murray tripled his goal of 7 yards on the second-and-14, when the Broncos safeties played deep to defend the pass.
“That’s what was going through my mind,” Murray said. “I saw cover-2, the safety fit outside and I cut inside — made him run.”
Murray, entering his sixth NFL season, is running better than he did at this point last preseason. No longer is he bothered by a troublesome ankle that stunted his 2017 debut with the Vikings.
“He’s been running well all camp,” Zimmer said. “The thing I liked about [Saturday night] is the acceleration through the hole after he found it. He dropped his pads when he got contact.”
The Vikings are fortunate to have Murray in the backfield, especially since the veteran agreed to a contract restructure this offseason to stay in Minnesota. While Cook continues to ease back from ACL surgery 10 months ago, Murray has proven to be more than just an insurance policy.
“I thought about each option,” said Murray of this offseason’s decision, “but ultimately what was most important was winning. Financially, I think we all make good money. But the most important thing was where did I have an opportunity to play for a Super Bowl and win?”