For all of coach Mike Zimmer’s emphasis on building the Vikings’ offensive identity on a strong running game — an aim the coach stated as plainly on Wednesday as he had in some time — no Vikings running back had run the ball 30 times in a game in Zimmer’s 6½ seasons before Sunday.
That’s when Dalvin Cook, with three weeks to recover from a groin injury he sustained Oct. 11 in Seattle, showed up to Lambeau Field as the focal point of a Vikings offense intent on exerting its will over the Packers’ run defense on a windy day in Green Bay.
Cook carried 30 times for 163 yards, adding a 50-yard score on a screen pass to give the Vikings a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter of their 28-22 upset. His four-touchdown performance earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday, and served as another reminder of his status in a club that has few members in 2020: running backs who are their team’s primary weapon.
It was almost reminiscent of the last running back to hold such a gilded position in Minnesota, days before he returns to U.S. Bank Stadium as a visitor on Sunday.
Adrian Peterson had six 30-carry games in his 10 seasons with the Vikings, the first coming when he broke the NFL’s single-game rushing record with 296 yards as a rookie and the last coming in a 23-20 win over the Bears in 2013, Leslie Frazier’s final season. Peterson sprained his foot the following week in Baltimore, and Matt Asiata carried 30 times in a Week 15 win over the Eagles, during which Peterson ambled into the Metrodome press box to let it be known he had lobbied to play hurt.
Since then — and even though Peterson won another rushing title playing for Zimmer in 2015 — the Vikings hadn’t turned to one running back so much in a game before Cook’s big day Sunday.
Cook leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns, with 10 through seven games, and is one of only two backs (along with Tennessee’s Derrick Henry) averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game. As the Vikings build their identity around him, Cook has embraced the role.
“When we brought in Coach [Gary] Kubiak and last year with Coach [Kevin] Stefanski, that mixture of both of them with them great minds, they’ve seen what we can do if we go out there and impose our will on teams,” Cook said. “That’s just coming from putting that work in. Like I said, coach seen it. Our identity is play physical football, play smart football, manage the clock, get our defense back out there, and give Kirk some manageable situations to make plays, which he does in great fashion.
‘‘Like I said up front, we just run yards like Swiss chard. That’s what it is.”
Cook invoked the leafy vegetable twice Wednesday to describe the Vikings’ running game, with a catchphrase that seemed to go over the heads of the reporters who heard it. No matter; his point was made.
The Vikings are one of the few NFL teams with a true 50-50 run/pass balance. Of their 201 running plays, all but a handful of Kirk Cousins scrambles have been designed runs, while the quarterback has thrown it 189 times and been sacked on 15 plays. According to Sharp Football Stats, only the Patriots and Ravens — two teams with running quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson — have run more often than the Vikings.
A week ago, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said, “How Dalvin goes, we normally go.” Asked about the remark on Wednesday, coach Mike Zimmer said, “Well, I think we want to be a run-first offense, a run-first team. I’m sure that’s kind of what he meant.”
It’s a formula the Vikings believe maximizes the talents of mobile offensive linemen such as center Garrett Bradbury and right tackle Brian O’Neill, who followed Bradbury’s cut block with one of his own before escorting Cook down the field on his 50-yard TD on Sunday. It’s one that Peterson, who has gained 321 yards for the Lions at age 35 this year after his release in Washington, would undoubtedly love.
“You work so hard, put so much time in it, and you watch some of the guys that played this game in a great fashion before me,” Cook said, in reference to Zimmer mentioning him in the same sentence earlier this week as Emmitt Smith, one of Peterson’s childhood heroes and the NFL’s all-time rushing leader.
“To be mentioned with those guys is always a tremendous, tremendous accolade. So just continue grinding. Nothing changes for me. I’m going back to work 1,000% flying around today, pushing these guys.”