Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
After a nine-draft stretch where they only selected two offensive linemen in the first two rounds (Phil Loadholt in 2009 and Matt Khalil in 2012), the Vikings changed course in 2018 and began devoting higher draft picks to the group in front of Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook. They selected tackle Brian O’Neill at the end of the second round in 2018, used their first-round pick on center Garrett Bradbury in 2019 and watched as Boise State tackle Ezra Cleveland — a player they’d targeted before the draft — fell to their spot in the second round this year.
The three players, like 2017 third-round pick Pat Elflein before them, were selected in large part because of their compatibility with the zone running scheme the Vikings used under Pat Shurmur (and John DeFilippo) and have particularly emphasized under Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak. The Vikings have focused on athletic, agile linemen who can lead Cook on wide zone plays or climb to the second level of the defense on inside zone runs. The group might give something up in pass protection by way of size or wingspan, but it is constructed to thrive in settings where the Vikings can lean on their preferred phase of offense.
We focused much of our attention in Sunday’s game story on Cook, who became the first player ever to surpass 200 yards from scrimmage and score four touchdowns at Lambeau Field, so it seems worth our time today to focus on the group Cook highlighted after the game: an oft-maligned line that thrived in a game setting where it could do what it does best.
The Vikings opened holes and cutback lanes for Cook on inside zone runs, creating room for him to elude Packers defenders who never seemed to get a clear shot on him. While Cook gained 111 of his 163 rushing yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus, the Packers missed 11 tackles on Sunday, often finding themselves trying to grab at the running back after a Vikings lineman had moved the Packers laterally out of the play.
On lead plays, like Cook’s second touchdown just before halftime, the Vikings walled off Rashan Gary at the end of the line of scrimmage with tight ends Irv Smith and Kyle Rudolph, while right guard Ezra Cleveland pulled to join fullback C.J. Ham as lead blockers for the running back.
On the 50-yard screen that broke the game open on a 3rd-and-9 in the third quarter, Cook secured a first down behind cut blocks from Bradbury and Cleveland (with some help from Adam Thielen) before following O’Neill and Smith into the open field for a touchdown.
“This past week, it might have been a Wednesday or a Thursday, and we were walking through and running through some halfback screens,” Bradbury said. “We had finished and were huddling up for the next one, and Dalvin goes to all five linemen, ‘You guys just get your guys down. I’ll do the rest. That’s it.’ He just had this confidence about him, and we did too, that as long as the ball is in his hands, he’s going to make something happen.”
After he scored his third touchdown behind blocks from Dakota Dozier and Cleveland, Cook handed the ball to the rookie guard to spike it (as captured by Star Tribune photographer Anthony Soufflé above). The running back certainly created plenty of his own success in the open field on Sunday, and he faced a Packers team that’s seemed content at times over the years to let Cook do his damage so it could stop Cousins’ bootlegs. The Packers focused on Cousins in their Week 2 win last year, and Dean Lowry’s second-quarter sack of Cousins came when the defensive end made a beeline for Cousins off a play fake, arriving untouched after Preston Smith occupied Rudolph and O’Neill blocked down toward the direction of the play fake.
“You always appreciate what people do for you,” Cook said. “I know how much I work and I know how much those guys work. You have to commend those guys too because I’m grinding for my brother next to me. There’s no award for them, it’s me scoring the touchdown and they don’t get to score the touchdown. I want them to feel the same feeling that I feel when I’m scoring the touchdown. Those guys are the reason I’m in front of you giving you guys a winning speech.”
But Cook’s consistent success on Sunday, and the Vikings’ red-zone conversions, were certainly facilitated by a line that was in its element, moving a Packers front through swirling winds and allowing the Vikings to whip their rivals.
”You’re kind of imposing your will, and that’s every lineman’s dream,” Bradbury said. “And that’s definitely how this offense is built — to run the ball, play-action. We can hurt you a bunch of different ways. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We were running the ball well and Coach Kub was trusting us. He was leaning on us, and Dalvin was being Dalvin. It was a lot of fun. A great team win.”
Here is a look at another player who stood out in Sunday’s 28-22 win:
Eric Kendricks: Cousins effusively praised the linebacker after the game, and it was well-deserved on a day where Kendricks had 12 tackles, including a handful of run stops. He also helped hold the Vikings’ defense together in pass coverage with the secondary decimated by injuries. Kendricks’ pass breakup on Davante Adams, when the linebacker ran with the Packers’ top receiver on a first-and-30 downfield shot, was as good an endorsement for his versatility as there could be. With the Vikings’ line in flux, a young secondary decimated by injuries and his running mate Anthony Barr out for the season, Kendricks continues to make plays and attempt to hold the Vikings’ defense together seemingly almost through sheer willpower.
“Eric is a terrific player, great kid, loves playing the game and it’s important that we have him,” Zimmer said. “But, you know, Shamar Stephen and the two safeties, Anthony Harris and Harrison, they’re a big part of trying to help these young guys in there as well. And even Eric Wilson, whose been playing a lot now, he’s starting to be more like Kendricks. Those two are getting more on the same page. Kendricks is a really good player. But these other guys are trying to help too.”
Two areas of concern
Secondary depth: Mike Hughes is on injured reserve after aggravating the neck injury he sustained last year, Holton Hill continues to battle a foot injury, Mark Fields is expected to be out for several weeks with a “pinhole puncture” in his lung, and Cameron Dantzler was taken to a Green Bay hospital for medical examination after leaving the field on a stretcher at the end of the first quarter. Zimmer kept the Vikings’ safeties in a two-deep shell for much of Sunday, as he’s done at times this year to protect the corners; that plan might need to change if Anthony Harris is dealt before Tuesday’s trade deadline. Even if Harris is here for the rest of the season, the Vikings will have to adjust their secondary — they were using the safety as a nickel corner at the end of the game on Sunday.
Red zone defense: The Vikings had done a fine job holding teams to field goals at the beginning of the year, but they’ve shown signs of slippage in the past three games, particularly as teams find ways to pick on their young corners. The Seahawks, Falcons and Packers went a combined 8-for-9 on red zone trips; Rodgers hit Adams for three red zone touchdowns against Vikings rookies on Sunday, earning Jeff Gladney a talking-to from Zimmer after the first touchdown. Zimmer has talked about his corners needing to challenge receivers more, and momentary lapses in technique have contributed to a handful of the recent touchdowns (see: D.K. Metcalf’s game-winner against Dantzler in Seattle or a couple of Adams’ TDs on Sunday). It’s bound to be an area of focus for the young secondary the rest of the year.
Two trends to watch
How the Vikings create a pass rush: Zimmer is ordinarily loathe to blitz Rodgers, and he chose to make the quarterback stay patient on Sunday, sending extra pressure after Rodgers on only eight of 44 dropbacks (per PFF). D.J. Wonnum chased Rodgers down for a strip sack to end the game on Sunday, and the Vikings’ belief in their young defensive linemen contributed to their trade of Yannick Ngakoue (as did the pass rusher’s fit with how the Vikings want to play defense). Gladney’s corner blitz was an effective change-up on Sunday, and especially if the Vikings continue to have to be judicious with their coverage resources, they’ll need their young pass rushers to keep developing.
How teams cover the Vikings’ receivers: The Packers chose to have Jaire Alexander shadow Justin Jefferson on Sunday, after using the corner on Adam Thielen in recent years, and the shift reflected some of the respect the rookie receiver is earning after his hot start. The Vikings’ next several opponents (the Lions, Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars) tend not to have corners shadow receivers, so Jefferson might not see an assignment like the one he drew on Sunday for a while, but it’ll be worth watching how much teams decide to roll coverage to the rookie or to Thielen.
One big question
What does the win mean in the NFC North? The Vikings have every right to feel good about their victory, when they went into Lambeau Field as six-point underdogs and left as the only division team to win on Sunday. They have eschewed talk of rebuilding, and by the time they face the 3-4 Lions on Sunday, they could have picked up another half-game on the Packers, who travel to San Francisco on Thursday night for a NFC Championship Game rematch with the last team to run the ball on them as forcefully as the Vikings did it on Sunday.
Zimmer has tried to disconnect the team’s record from any decisions it will make at the trade deadline; the hints the coach left about the Ngakoue trade have matched up with what people have said behind the scenes about the defensive end not being a fit. The Vikings have looked at trading several veterans before Tuesday; it remains to be seen whether they’ll consummate any deals, but a run on the order of what it would take to get back in the playoff race would require a major jump in consistency, so one win might not be worth a shift in strategy. In any case, if the Vikings have a chance to string together a few wins with favorable matchups at home in the coming weeks, it makes sense for them to do it with players who’ll be around in the future, anyway.
The Vikings did, however, remind teams of a blueprint that’s worked against the Packers in the past, and Green Bay is facing some questions about its offense after losing two of three with Aaron Jones out. The Bears play the Titans on the road Sunday, and the Vikings could pull into a third-place tie with the Lions if they can win Sunday. So who knows, they could find themselves only two games back of the Packers by the end of Week 9, with a Monday night game at Soldier Field coming after that.
But if they have any chance to get back in the playoff race, they’d need to string wins together in November before road games against the Buccaneers and Saints in December. Consistency is the marker of true success in the NFL; perhaps the coming weeks will give the Vikings a chance to show it.