There was more than the fishing on Lake Minnetonka that helped Vikings rookie Dalvin Cook settle into his new home this summer.
The Vikings redesigned the backfield this offseason after last year’s last-place rushing attack. Led by Cook, the second-round pick, they feature new cornerstones at nearly every spot along with running back Latavius Murray, left tackle Riley Reiff and right tackle Mike Remmers. A tweaked blueprint, however, is familiar to Cook, the elusive 22-year-old heir stepping in for future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson.
“We are running the same thing [as at Florida State]: zone,” Cook said. “Inside zone, outside zone. Utilizing me to catch the football. I just think getting the ball in my hand in as many ways as possible is where I can make plays. I did the same thing at Florida State, and I think that is why this situation is so unique.”
Gone are the Sundays of Vikings quarterbacks cemented in a typical I-formation, under center with Peterson 7 yards directly behind awaiting a full head of steam behind man-to-man blocking. The Vikings run game has adapted a slashing style, picking up on zone-running schemes, ones the team believes cater to the strengths of Cook and can coexist and blend with offensive line coach Tony Sparano’s power/gap blocking background.
“I think you can see in the games from some of the runs we’ve had,” running back Jerick McKinnon said, “it’s working.”
Quarterback Sam Bradford and the Vikings starters struggled this preseason, but the run game improved in its test run. Starters averaged just over 4 yards per carry despite playing without the starting left tackle for nine of 12 series.
Cook looked smooth in limited action with a 4.1-yard average on the ground and another 35 yards on six catches. Perhaps more important, he appeared a willing pass protector in coordinator Pat Shurmur’s predominantly three-receiver offense.
“He came from a pretty advanced offensive system at Florida State,” Shurmur said. “You saw principles of zone-running, gap-running and pass protection where he was involved. He was also involved in route running. He has a pretty good foundation of what we’re going to ask him to do, and I think that helps him.”
Zone-blocking calls for decisiveness and vision from running backs. Offensive linemen don’t need to be as big. Athleticism is a priority for the big men to chase defenders horizontally, trying to use their momentum against them by opening up cutback lanes, said Herm Edwards, former NFL head coach and ESPN analyst.
“This is more of a fit for [Cook] in the fact that it’s one step and hit the hole,” said Edwards, who coached Cook in the 2014 Under Armour All-American Game. “That’s what the zone-running scheme is all about. It’s really about having some offensive linemen that can set the edge a little bit, get off the ball quickly and then just allow the runner the one step to hit the seam.”
Running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu has prioritized “rhythm and tempo” with Vikings backs on zone plays, according to McKinnon, preaching that they need to help set up blocks and then “strike a match” when they see a lane and make the cut.
“When Adrian was here, it was more [under center],” McKinnon said. “It gives us more to the offense. The gun is something I’ve always been comfortable with. Latavius runs out of the gun. Dalvin can run out of the gun, so that’s the good thing about this running back room. We can do everything the coaches ask for us, and willingly, too.”