DETROIT – There have been few places sweeter for Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph than Ford Field, where the ninth-year NFL veteran’s only three touchdowns of the past 13 months have come.
“Detroit’s been good to me,” Rudolph said after Sunday’s 42-30 win against the Lions.
Rudolph and tight end Irv Smith Jr. emerged from offensive obscurity as each had season-best marks in catches, targets and yardage during the Vikings’ 503-yard explosion in Detroit. Most of that came without receiver Adam Thielen, who injured his hamstring in the first quarter and did not return.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins turned to Rudolph and Smith Jr. for a combined 10 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets — six apiece.
“The tight ends were called upon,” said Rudolph, who had five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. “Irv played really well. [Tyler Conklin] came in, doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the run game and pass pro.”
They were involved before Thielen’s injury. On the opening drive, Cousins faked a handoff to running back Dalvin Cook and gained 28 yards on a throw to Smith, who outran Lions cornerback Rashaan Melvin on a deep crossing route.
A banged-up Lions defense, without top cornerback Darius Slay for much of the game, had no answers for whomever Cousins wanted to target. He diced up a Lions front eager to jump at fake handoffs.
“Play-action is something that can open up the game for us,” said Smith, who tied his career high with 60 receiving yards. “They ran a lot of man coverage today, and we did a good job of getting open.”
Could there be a lasting effect for the Vikings offense? Tight ends are frequently involved as blockers, like when Rudolph and Conklin double-teamed Lions linebacker Devon Kennard during Smith 28-yard catch, but they’ve previously been underutilized as receiving threats.
“That was important,” Cousins said. “That will be a big part of our offense. We have three tight ends on the field a lot. We ask them to protect, we ask them to run block, we ask them to run the entire route tree, and I can’t say enough about the way all three of them contribute. If anything is tough, there’s only one football.”
The lasting effect, coach Mike Zimmer hopes, is less attention on his star receiving duo of Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Diggs drew plenty of safety attention on Rudolph’s 15-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“The more that we can mix it around, the less that you tend to get double coverage,” Zimmer said.
Rudolph pointed to the Vikings offensive line, and how effective the offense can be if they deploy all five eligible receivers — as they did on his touchdown — instead of asking one or two to stay as extra pass protectors.
“When we use all five,” Rudolph said, “we’re really tough to beat.”