When Dalvin Cook has been given an inch, he’s taking a mile.
The Vikings star running back has made life a lot easier for everybody in the offense, including the often-discussed line. But Cook’s other-worldly success has overshadowed the offensive line’s progress. They’ve taken important steps forward in two wins since the bye week, building confidence heading into one of their toughest matchups of the season on Monday night in Chicago’s defensive front.
“Yeah, it’s a lot better,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Riley Reiff is playing really well right now, Garrett Bradbury, I think Dakota [Dozier’s] been playing well. I think [Ezra] Cleveland’s been doing a nice job since he’s been in there, and [Brian] O’Neill just keeps improving each and every week and year as he’s continued his progression. They’re doing really well. Dalvin helps them, too, just as much as they help Dalvin. It’s a combination of things.”
1. Cook didn’t have to be a magician for each of his career-high 206 rushing yards against the Lions, as the Vikings offensive line soundly blocked a typically hapless Lions front on plays like this shotgun power run in the first quarter.
With fullback C.J. Ham joining Cook in the backfield, the Vikings have a numbers advantage (7 blockers vs. a 7-man front) and simply need to win their matchups. Left guard Dakota Dozier (#78) pulls right, but this play starts with tight end Irv Smith Jr. (#84).
Smith gets a tremendous push on Lions DL Nick Williams (#97), which helps right tackle Brian O’Neill wall off that side of the alley for Cook. Smith helps again by climbing to the linebacker level.
Ham (#30), Dozier (#78) and Smith (#84) create the playside alley for Cook while rookie right guard Ezra Cleveland (#72) does a good job looking for work downfield, hitting linebacker Jamie Collins.
This is an example of Cook taking what the line gives him, which is a lot on this first-quarter play.
2. Coordinator Gary Kubiak called the shotgun power run again to start the hurry-up drive just before halftime.
This time, in a passing situation, the Vikings’ three-receiver formation creates a different look for Cook and his blockers.
No fullback C.J. Ham means tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82) has to handle the playside defensive end. Lions safety Jayron Kearse (#42) is the unblocked defender initially, with the pulling guard, Dozier, meeting the linebacker in the hole. Receiver Adam Thielen (#19) has to come out of frame to throw a “crack” block.
Cook initially turns upfield, where Lions defensive end Everson Griffen (#97) goes as O’Neill handles him. Kearse has an opening, but Thielen throws the backside block and Cook bounces outside for a 5-yard gain.
The blocking is nowhere near as pretty as the previous 9-yard run, but Cook helps the line by finding the right path.
3. Rookie Ezra Cleveland has been an improvement at right guard, where Dru Samia was wildly inconsistent through four starts replacing Pat Elflein. Elflein’s return remains unclear with one week left before the Vikings need to activate or shelve him, and they may not want to take Cleveland off the field anyway.
But even with Cleveland’s athleticism, low pad level and effort, there are still rookie struggles that coaches likely want to see cleaned up quickly. This includes a lack of awareness on this 8-yard run below, which had no business being an 8-yard run.
This inside-zone run comes against a very light Lions defensive front, spread out to defend a three-receiver set on 2nd-and-18. Lions safety Jayron Kearse (#42) approaches the line late, forcing right tackle Brian O’Neill to adjust his blocking in the zone scheme.
When Kearse drops onto the line, O’Neill has to account for him as the widest Lions defender. Cleveland should follow suit and aim one more defender over, but he doesn’t adjust accordingly. He still blocks the guy directly in front, defensive tackle Danny Shelton (#71), while Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara (#95) goes unblocked into the backfield.
Cook dodges Okwara and turns this potential loss into an 8-yard gain.
4. Cook did plenty of dodging, with this 13-yard run in the fourth quarter (which put him over 200 yards) getting called out by Kirk Cousins as the most impressive of Cook’s career day.
Receiver Adam Thielen (#19) is sent in pre-snap motion across the formation, but the man-coverage-happy Lions do not send cornerback Desmond Trufant (#23) with him. Trufant instead blitzes, which should be the perfect defensive call against this Vikings play.
Cousins fakes the handoff to Thielen and pitches outside to Cook, whose lightning-quick step north evades Trufant. Cook accelerates upfield for 13 yards on a play that should’ve been a big loss. The Vikings’ play design calls for Cook to shake an unblocked defensive end on his side, and he avoids both the end and blitzing corner.
“For him to have 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,” Zimmer said.
5. The Lions made sure to help out Cook, too, by not putting all 11 defenders on the field for his 70-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Believe it or not, that’s the third (!) time that’s happened to the Lions in back-to-back losses, playing two snaps vs. the Colts in Week 8 with just 10 defenders on the field.
This time, it was Kubiak with the perfect play call for the opponent’s situation. The Vikings had a fullback-lead power run called directly into the spot where an 11th Lions defender should’ve been.
Lions linebacker Jamie Collins (#58) motions to the sideline for another defender when the ball is snapped and Cook is off running.
This isn’t even blocked perfectly. Left guard Dakota Dozier loses his grip on Shelton (#71), and Cook has to break that tackle attempt before darting off for a 70-yard score. Cook compounds Cleveland’s effort to get downfield by following him to shake the safety.