The fact Dalvin Cook’s first 200-yard game came with Adrian Peterson on the opposite side line has been stated repeatedly in the hours after the Vikings’ 34-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, and its significance seemed not to be lost on either running back.
The two running backs met on the Norseman logo at U.S. Bank Stadium (as photographed here by the Star Tribune’s Carlos Gonzalez) immediately after the game. Cook gave a heartfelt salute to Peterson in his postgame news conference on Sunday, and on Monday morning, the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher tweeted a clip of Cook’s remarks, with some warm words for his successor in Minnesota.
Cook is indeed offering a modernized version of Peterson’s dominance, one that’s showcased him as a receiving threat and a capable pass blocker in addition to a superb runner who can work with a quarterback under center or in the shotgun. When he is taking handoffs, Cook differentiates himself from Peterson in one other significant respect: his efficiency.
When Peterson ran for 2,097 yards in 2012, nearly a quarter of his carries (86 of 348) went for no gain or lost yards. He lost a total of 90 yards on those 86 carries; it might make what he did with his other 262 carries (gaining 8.35 yards per attempt) even more remarkable. He had 61 runs that went for at least 10 yards that season, and 27 that gained at least 20.
As electrifying as Peterson’s self-described “famine, famine, feast” style could be, it inherently required an offense that would give him enough carries to get lathered up. During his 10 seasons with the Vikings, Peterson carried the ball 2,418 times; 540 (or 22.3 percent) of those went for no gain or a loss.
By contrast, Cook has only carried the ball for no gain or a loss on 15 of his 144 carries in the seven games he’s played this year, losing a total of eight yards on those attempts. Just four of his 22 carries on Sunday went for two yards or less; two of those carries were inside the Lions’ 5, and none of the four went for a loss. He’s carried 601 times in his career with the Vikings; 95 (or 15.8 percent) have gone for zero yards or less.
According to Football Outsiders’ Success Rate metric, which measures the percentage of the time a player makes significant progress toward a first down (based on down and distance), Cook has been successful on 57 percent of his runs this year, after posting a 49 percent success rate last season. The 49-percent mark matched Peterson’s best (in 2012) in Minnesota.
To put it in basketball terms, if Peterson was a volume shooter who could turn in 40-point nights but might take 27 shots to do so, Cook is the type of scorer who can put up 30 while going 10-of-18 from the floor.
There are a number of other factors to consider in the difference between the two backs. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cook is facing eight or more defenders in the box 31.25 percent of the time; that’s comparable to some of Peterson’s rates in Minnesota (around 35 percent of the time in 2011, and 30 percent in 2012, according to ESPN Stats and Information). But Cook is playing in an era where teams are generally more successful on the ground, on a per-carry basis, than they’ve ever been, and he’s starring in an offense that has more going for it than the Vikings often did in Peterson’s era (with the exception of Brett Favre’s 2009 season). Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback, with better receivers, than passers like Tarvaris Jackson or Christian Ponder were, and the Vikings have made play fakes a staple of their offense, not just a theoretical benefit of having a great running back.
The Vikings also spend much more time running out of shotgun sets, or formations with three receivers, than they ever did under Peterson; that was partially because of how Peterson was comfortable and how their roster was constructed at the time, but especially toward the end of Bill Musgrave’s tenure as offensive coordinator, some Vikings decision-makers used to gripe about the frequency of bunch sets that lured more defenders into the box. The Vikings use plenty of heavy personnel under Gary Kubiak now, but also have the ability to keep teams off-guard by throwing with three tight ends (as they did yesterday) or running with three receivers.
The difference, though, likely owes something to the contrast in the two men’s running styles. Peterson’s running style in Minnesota was an act of sheer physical excellence; his famous jump cut would allow him to find cutback lanes a gap or two away (sometimes in a different spot than the play was designed to offer), and his open-field speed was matched with pure power than many defenders did not want to try and corral. While Cook has plenty of pure speed and more force than expected, his nimble feet might be his defining characteristic; he is well-suited for the Vikings’ zone scheme that gives him chances to cut upfield against overpursuing defenders or get to the edge on a toss play. The run Cousins cited as Cook’s most impressive on Sunday was the one that put him over 200: a fourth-quarter flip the running back turned into a 13-yard gain with a move on Desmond Trufant after it looked like the play could lose several yards.
“Yeah, that looked really bad coming out of there,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “But he makes guys miss in the open field. I think the third-and-7 [in the first quarter], he caught the ball out of the backfield and the linebacker was there and stopped and cut back inside and accelerated to the first down. He’s really hard to tackle 1-on-1, let alone when there’s some space. For him to have a vision on the play you’re talking about, and then be able to stop and start and make the two guys miss, that was pretty impressive.”
While Cook isn’t producing game-breaking runs in 2020 that Peterson did in 2012 — 17.3 percent of Cook’s carries have gone for 10-plus yards and 3.4 percent have gone for 20-plus, compared to 17.5 percent and 7.7 percent for Peterson that year — he’s also been less likely to get little or nothing on his carries. That’s a big benefit for a Vikings offense that’s finding its groove after rarely playing with a lead during the first part of the year, and it’s put a different spin on ground-game success in Minnesota.
Here is another trend to watch from the Vikings’ 34-20 win:
Running backs as big-play passing threats: It was interesting to view the Vikings’ two-minute drill at the end of the first half as a case study, given the fact they went 87 yards in six plays despite the fact Kirk Cousins didn’t attempt a pass longer than six yards downfield. The Vikings picked up 51 of their 87 yards on passes to running backs: a dump-off to Cook that he took for 29 yards, and a screen to Ameer Abdullah for a 22-yard score. This follows the Vikings’ 50-yard score against Green Bay on a screen they called on third-and-10, and it seems to reveal a couple things about their offense: a) how confident they are they can get big plays and work the clock efficiently with well-constructed screens; and b) how they might feel about asking Cousins to push things. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen have been targeted with nearly all of Cousins’ throws of 20-plus air yards in the Vikings’ past three games, and as they receive more attention from opposing defenses, the screen can be an effective counterpunch, particularly when it creates another way to put the ball in Cook’s hands.
”Part of it is the athleticism that we have, and with the screens, it’s always about timing,” Zimmer said. “If we can get the offensive linemen out on the perimeter and get them to try to get whoever the force [player] or the contain [player] is, then we can get them blocked, and our backs are pretty good in space. I think that’s part of it. The cornerback has to do a good job on the screens, you know, that’s important as well. It’s been good for us. It was good for us last year, and hopefully it’ll continue to be good.”
Two players who stood out
Eric Wilson: The Vikings have asked more and more of the linebacker this season with Anthony Barr out for the year, and he continues to show he can be an effective three-down player. He posted his second interception in as many weeks on Sunday, and rushed the quarterback seven times in 75 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Wilson, who split a sack with Shamar Stephen and also had 13 tackles, will be a free agent after this year; it’ll be interesting to see what the Vikings do with him at the same time they might have to make a decision about Barr’s contract, which carries a $15.06 million cap hit.
Jeff Gladney: The rookie corner struggled early this year, but has started to show signs of improvement as he’s been one of the only corners to avoid injury. He played 74 of the Vikings’ 75 defensive snaps on Sunday, and while he was targeted nine times, he only allowed five catches for 28 yards, per PFF.
Two areas of concern
Special teams: Where to start? The Vikings had two punts blocked on Sunday. Dan Bailey missed an extra point. They started three drives inside their own 25 after fielding kickoffs (and absorbing a C.J. Ham holding penalty on one). Zimmer was blunt in his assessment after the game, saying the special teams need to be better, and on a day where the Vikings didn’t turn the ball over from the line of scrimmage, they were fortunate their special teams gaffes didn’t cost them more.
Penalties: The Vikings committed nine of them for 69 yards, including a delay of game on a third-and-6 that effectively killed the drive started by Ham’s holding penalty on special teams. Cousins said the penalty was his fault, and two other delay-of-game calls were when the Vikings were trying to draw the Lions offside on fourth down. But Minnesota had two holding penalties on offense and a pass interference penalty on Chris Jones to go with another 15-yard penalty on Harrison Smith for lowering his helmet that again seemed to leave the safety dumbfounded about what else he could have done.
One big question
Is it time to take the Vikings seriously? They’ve improved to 10th in the NFC, only two games back of the Rams for the seventh playoff spot in the conference, and will have a chance to pick up a game on one of the teams ahead of them next Monday in Chicago. That game, as much as anything, could dictate whether the Vikings have a run in them; a loss at Soldier Field (where they’ve fallen three times in the past four years) would leave the Vikings needing to beat either the Buccaneers or Saints on the road, while winning the rest of their games, to get to 9-7. A victory in Chicago, though, would allow the Vikings to get to nine wins without having to beat either Tom Brady or Drew Brees on the road, and that might be enough to get them in for a playoff game against the NFC’s No. 2 seed. At the moment, that would mean a first-round matchup in … Seattle (we’ll pause here for your exasperated sighs).
In any case, Monday night will tell us plenty about whether the Vikings have a serious chance to capitalize on the NFC’s expanded playoff field and rebound from a 1-5 start. Their fourth prime-time game in five years at Soldier Field could hold the key to the rest of their season.