Dalvin Cook must have cracked a smile when he learned Packers running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams combined for 262 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns on Sunday night against the Chiefs — his next opponent at Arrowhead Stadium this weekend. Or maybe one just hasn’t left his face so far this season.
It has been that kind of year for Cook, the NFL’s rushing leader in yards and touchdowns. There’s little reason to think that won’t continue Sunday in Kansas City, where the Chiefs run defense has already surrendered four 100-yard rushers (and 99 yards to Oakland’s Josh Jacobs) and a 159-yard, two-touchdown receiving night from Packers running back Aaron Jones on Sunday.
At the halfway point, Cook’s all-time pace (currently 2,232 yards from scrimmage) would give him the 17th-best season in league history. He’s given the Vikings offense a real threat underneath, a perfect complement to a vertical play-action passing game.
1. It’s not only that the Chiefs defense is porous against the run, but how they’ve sprung their leaks. Kansas City is banged up. Frank Clark is out with a neck injury. Defensive tackles Chris Jones and Xavier Williams are also sidelined. Chiefs linebackers are an uneven bunch, susceptible to big plays as shown by Aaron Jones and the Packers. They benched cover man Darron Lee because he wasn’t great in coverage, which led to the good decision of playing Reggie Ragland more.
But Anthony Hitchens (six missed tackles) and Damien Wilson (five) play a lot, and they’re vulnerable. Replacement DTs Derrick Nnadi and Khalen Saunders are young.
When teams bulk up, the Chiefs have an even harder time stopping the run, playing into the Vikings’ strengths. Only the Steelers, Lions and Cardinals are as bad at stopping runs from ’12 personnel,’ or two tight ends, as the Chiefs, according to Sharp Football.
Kansas City is allowing a 62% success rate to runners out of two tight end formations, their weakest matchup in the run game, while it’s the strength (49% success) of the Vikings’ third-ranked rushing attack.
Down 31-24 with 5:04 left, the Chiefs needed a stop. They got a perfect punt to pin the Packers at their own 2-yard line. Green Bay decides to run at the backups in Saunders (#99) and Tanoh Kpassagnon (#92), replacing Clark.
Despite the world knowing what’s coming, the Packers bully six yards of space from their own goal line to spark an 11-play drive that ended the game. If the Vikings can create half the space for Cook, take the over should you be in Vegas.
One more bit to remember for the Vikings’ run game — the Chiefs defense is among the NFL’s worst at defending runs off either tackle, right (7.5-yard average) or left (6-yard average). And… nobody calls more runs that end up off tackles than the Vikings’ Kevin Stefanski, according to the NFL’s Game Statistics and Information System.
It’s a product of the Vikings’ outside zone scheme that leans on Cook’s vision to find holes in stretch runs like this 1st-and-10 play below against Washington. Cook starts toward right tackle, and cuts back to Riley Reiff’s side as the left tackle creates an opening. Cook’s acceleration allows him to beat incoming defenders from the edges.
2. The Vikings’ screen game could also keep rolling for Cook, who caught five passes for 78 yards against Washington last week.
Kansas City just gave up two huge touchdown plays to Aaron Jones, whom the Packers split out wide in one-on-one matchups with Chiefs linebackers. The Vikings don’t do that very often, but they can motion Cook out of the backfield and get him in space like the Colts did with receiving back Nyheim Hines in a 19-13 win against the Chiefs.
3. Why is the offensive line protecting better? Cousins’ invigorated play, combined with a full embrace of play-action, has helped the O-line throughout this four-game win streak.
The Vikings’ line deserves credit for its improvements, particularly Reiff and center Garrett Bradbury after forgettable starts to their seasons. But with his play calling, Stefanski has leaned into the approach head coach Mike Zimmer has beckoned for all while remaining aggressive with early-down shots that keep defenders (emphasis on pass rush) off balance.
Cousins and the Vikings lead the NFL in play-action percentage (35.9%), according to Pro Football Focus, and the past four weeks have cemented that standing while Stefanski pushes the boundaries of play action. The rate at which he’s called it the past four games would be the most for any quarterback since PFF started charting the data in 2012. Cousins, in turn, has seen less pressure since.
In the Week 6 win against the Eagles, a busted defense bit hard on play action throughout the game. Below, the entire middle of Philadelphia’s defense (circled) bites on a fake run facing an offset I-formation (from which Cousins handed off earlier in the game).
Cousins emerges from the bootleg clean as the Eagles defensive end also crashes hard onto the run. Cousins’ ability to roll left, square up and throw this 51-yard touchdown to receiver Stefon Diggs is a weapon that should be taken advantage of over and over until defenses adjust. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins is the lone defender over the top, but he jumps onto tight end Kyle Rudolph’s crossing route, which is open as linebackers bite on the run.
Even without play-action, Cousins has made plays downfield with a talented arm.
On this 3rd-and-10 play in the Week 7 win at Detroit, the Lions try to spread the Vikings offensive line with a wide rush. Linebacker Jarrad Davis (#40) tries to hold guard Josh Kline (#64) with a fake rush before dropping into coverage.
That’s supposed to get rid of the help for right tackle Brian O’Neill (#75) against Trey Flowers (#90), but O’Neill — the most promising Vikings lineman in some time — doesn’t need it.
The Vikings’ protection scheme helps Reiff, often a step slow against speed rushers, as the Lions spread out. Rudolph (#82) chips the defender before releasing on a route. An encouraging sign for the Vikings must’ve been how left guard Pat Elflein (#65) and Bradbury (#56) handled this twist. They give up ground, which has been a problem this season, but they adjust to the Lions’ twist and keep Cousins clean enough. He throws a dime for 27 yards to Diggs.
4. The Vikings’ blitz schemes have been effective as ever under Mike Zimmer, and they’re one way to apply pressure on Chiefs backup quarterback Matt Moore.
The Chiefs have done a good job of protecting Moore, the 35-year-old journeyman starting for an injured Patrick Mahomes, with the classic motions, misdirection and window dressing for which Reid is known. But Kansas City’s offensive line is also banged up with backups starting in left tackle Cam Ervin and left guard Martinas Rankin.
So the Vikings may not need more than Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and the rest of the four-man rush. Should they, Zimmer has a varied arsenal at his disposal with smart defenders who rarely tip their hands.
I don’t expect Zimmer to call many, if any, zero blitzes against the Chiefs’ skill players. However, they can run a bevy of pressures from this look. On this 3rd-and-9 play below, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is pressured immediately as the Vikings outnumber his protectors. The keys here are linebacker Anthony Barr (#55) taking up center Jason Kelce while he backs off to watch running back Miles Sanders. This allows Eric Kendricks (#54) an open lane to Wentz.
Cornerback Mackensie Alexander (4.5 sacks since 2018) comes from the slot, where he doesn’t break character before the snap.
5. Zimmer says he’s “good” with cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but his playing time has decreased each of the last three weeks (80%-75%-70%). Sometimes his absence is due to a typical checkup on the sideline, but other times he’s getting pulled from games in certain moments — like the Lions’ two-minute drill before halftime when Mike Hughes took his place at right corner.
Rhodes’ situation is worth monitoring as the NFL trade deadline is Tuesday afternoon. The 29-year-old former All-Pro corner is still starting and playing a bulk of the work, but his reps are slowly being siphoned while he’s been asked to stop shadowing receivers of late.
In an interview with the Star Tribune after last Thursday’s game, Rhodes defended his coverage this season and took ownership for his continued penalty problem as he’s on pace for a career-high 14 flags.
While the weekly flag and two touchdowns in Detroit are stuck in the memory, keep in mind plays from Rhodes like this one below. It doesn’t show up in a highlight reel or box score, but he sticks to receiver Kenny Golladay (who had one catch for 21 yards) on this first-down sack by defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Golladay tries to run an out-and-in move on Rhodes, who pairs with linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54) to take away Stafford’s initial read on this sack. Rhodes hasn’t recaptured the disruptive magic he had a couple years ago, but the sky isn’t quite falling on him.