Jerick McKinnon faced three Chicago Bears. Two yards and the first-down marker separated them.
He could’ve taken the screen pass toward the sideline and reached for the critical conversion, but that’s not how the 5-9 former Georgia Southern option quarterback operates. McKinnon took on the biggest opponent in front of him, linebacker Christian Jones, who has six inches and 40 pounds on him, and buried his shoulder into the defender. He fell forward for the first down.
“I like contact,” said McKinnon, a bandage covering a three-day-old wound on his neck. “I’m a physical guy.”
“I don’t exactly remember what hit [caused the cut],” he added.
McKinnon, the Vikings’ shortest player, showed while packing a 146-yard offensive punch in the victory that he won’t shy away from hits. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Bears or the Packers, Sunday’s opponent at U.S. Bank Stadium. And it doesn’t matter whether he’s getting a lot of carries or a few.
McKinnon’s fearless approach doesn’t change.
The timing for his latest tough-guy style couldn’t have been better in the game against Chicago, following Dalvin Cook’s knee surgery. Perhaps it will spark a change in the Vikings’ approach after Latavius Murray, who started and gained 43 yards on 14 touches against the Bears and eventually took a back seat to McKinnon.
After fumbling a kickoff return out of bounds, McKinnon impressed coach Mike Zimmer. Five plays later, McKinnon jetted past Bears defenders on a 58-yard touchdown run that helped swing the Vikings’ 20-17 victory.
“I thought it was really big,” Zimmer said. “Showed his resiliency coming back after the fumble.”
But, in between healing sessions in the trainer’s room on a short week, McKinnon admitted the first hit of many big blows delivered by the Bears might have been avoidable.
“Maybe that first hit I took on the screen pass,” McKinnon recalled of the second-quarter play. “[Safety Adrian Amos] got me really good. It’s all good.”
Since drafting McKinnon in 2014’s third round, the Vikings have gained an effective role player capable of breaking the big play — even if his opportunities have been limited. McKinnon’s 13 NFL starts have come only in the wake of a suspension and knee surgery to former starter Adrian Peterson. Once Peterson walked in free agency, the Vikings signed Murray and drafted Cook in the second round this offseason.
McKinnon doesn’t publicly gripe about playing time or touches, even though the former Georgia high school track star is quietly averaging 4.2 yards per carry (21st among all backs since 2014) and 6.2 yards per reception (20th among all backs) since entering the league.
“He’s a tough kid,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He kind of brings an interesting dynamic to the tailback position. He can do a lot for us.”
He was fed well Monday night.
After McKinnon played 47 snaps to Murray’s 22 in Chicago, the Vikings are taking a game-by-game approach to playing time in the backfield, according to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
“Our intention was to use both of them [Monday night],” Shurmur said of McKinnon and Murray. “[McKinnon] sort of had the hot hand, and we just kind of stuck with him.”
“I thought he performed well,” Shurmur added. “The challenge now is to do it this week as well.”
McKinnon needs to recover first. That’s especially difficult during a short week heading into the Packers game.
McKinnon starts his physical therapy by 6 a.m. on a typical day. He’s taken to needling his 205-pound body to alleviate pain, picking acupuncture as one of his remedies. Those appointments are squeezed together during a five-day recovery window, and necessary after taking and delivering a handful of blows against the Bears.
“Getting adjusted after taking all those hits,” McKinnon said. “Getting twisted, making sure my body is in alignment and stuff like that.”
He’s heard some advice to take the sideline escape every now and then, but McKinnon said he’s not inclined to stop plowing into defenses every chance he gets.
“Sometimes they tell me not to take hits, but I’m not going to run out of bounds,” McKinnon said.
“That’s how I play the game, that’s how I was brought up playing the game. If it’s out of bounds or somebody, I’m going to go through somebody.”