A constant on Dalvin Cook’s iPad, where he studies a rotating catalog of opponent game film, is a highlight reel of Barry Sanders, the Hall of Fame running back known for making defenders look silly while carrying the Detroit Lions to relevance in the 1990s.
Cook keeps studying one run, a draw play where Sanders jukes, spins and sprints his way through the defense without schematic trickery or perfect blocking.
“Barry just stands there. They hand it to him, and he just shakes the whole team and runs just to go score,” Cook said this week via videoconference. “And that was pretty much every play he did that. And I watch it, not just because it’s Barry Sanders; I watch it because how he sets his runs up, how he develops things in his mind.”
Shades of Sanders could be seen in the Vikings’ Cook, the NFL’s leading rusher entering Sunday, during his 130-yard rushing day in Houston last weekend.
His highlight reel is growing in his fourth season, for which he says his only personal goal is his first 16-game campaign after an offseason focused on strength training, durability and a contract extension. He signed a five-year, $63 million deal last month.
Cook’s determination needs no supplementing, which Texans defenders found as he ran through four of them for his league-high sixth rushing touchdown during the Vikings’ 31-23 win.
Those are the kind of plays that endear someone to Sanders, even if they happen against his Lions.
“I hate that he plays in our division,” Sanders wrote in an e-mail, “but he is a beast.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Every time I watch his plays, I see something different from him and how he sees things,” Cook said. “And I just want to be as explosive as he was, and I know that’s not possible, but I’m going to try to match it as best that I can.”
Sanders, now 52 and more than two decades removed from his playing days, was flattered to hear Cook studies old clips of his games.
“I’m at the age where that is one of the things that is always humbling,” Sanders wrote.
Sparking the offense
During last weekend’s win, right tackle Brian O’Neill said he found himself looking up to the video boards inside NRG Stadium and asking, “Did he really just do that again?”
Cook accelerated through tiny creases and outran everybody to the edge, sparking the Vikings offense to be more efficient in the season’s first win. His speed on outside runs was key for an offense that needed to outmaneuver big Texans linebackers.
But Cook’s most impressive run came up the middle, slipping two full-body tackle attempts, an arm tackle, and switching the ball to his left before throwing a right-hand stiff arm on a 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“He had some highlight runs, didn’t he?” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said.
The success reverberated. Quarterback Kirk Cousins thrived when faking a handoff, completing more play-action passes (nine) against the Texans than he did through the first three games combined (eight). Kubiak was emboldened to call more first-down deep shots while Cousins averaged a league-high 16.4 yards on play-action throws.
As the Texans stacked defenders in the box, Cook continually broke free even when the offensive line broke down. He leads the league with 21 broken tackles in four games, according to Pro Football Focus, with 10 in Houston in a display of force and willpower.
“We weren’t perfect last week,” Kubiak said, “and when we weren’t, he helped us be a hell of a lot better. That’s the type of talent he has.”
Not unlike the 5-8 Sanders, Cook punches above his weight class. He is listed at 5-10 and 210 pounds — the lightest starting back in a Vikings game this year outside of Green Bay’s Aaron Jones (208 pounds).
“But I always wanted to carry myself as such, as if I was the biggest running back,” Cook said. “Breaking tackles is another way to get my team extra downs, to get my team a chance to go score a touchdown. So, whatever I’ve got to do, I’m going to put a lot on the line for this team.”
As a first-year team captain, Cook has publicly voiced his support for a maligned offensive line, but he’s also done so privately at TCO Performance Center after an 0-3 start offered plenty of blame to go around.
“He broke like six tackles on like a five-yard run,” O’Neill said. “You don’t see that from a lot of people. He’s a special talent. We really appreciate it, and we try to tell him a lot, and he tells us that, too. So, I got to tell him more.”
‘Sustaining’ for 16 games
A year ago in Seattle, Cook landed on his left shoulder and injured his clavicle while the Vikings and Seahawks were tied 17-17 in the third quarter. It was Cook’s second injury, after hurting his twice-surgically repaired right shoulder the previous month against Denver, and led to a two-game absence.
After dealing with ACL, hamstring and shoulder injuries in his first three seasons, Cook is out to prove he’s durable for 16 games. He worked to that end in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this offseason, changing gyms to emphasize weightlifting so he can handle another 300-touch season. He paired that with catching footballs from a JUGS machine in his backyard every morning. The ageless Frank Gore, a fellow Miami native and 37-year-old Jets running back, remained a mentor and occasional workout partner.
“Putting on some more muscle and putting it on the right way was key for me,” Cook said. “Just sustaining, being consistent, and I think that’s helping me be those things. I’ve just got to keep it up and stay on my recovery and just stick to my routine.”
Cook’s routine includes massages twice a week during the season when Monday mornings become less pleasant.
“That’s when it hits you,” Cook said. “When you go home Sunday night, adrenaline is still rushing and you’re going to lay down and watch some more football. You wake up the next morning and be like, ‘What happened?’ But you know, that’s when you get on top of it. You never overreact. You just stick to what got you to that point the week before and just get through it.”
Coach Mike Zimmer wants to monitor Cook’s weekly workload with a full season in mind. If Cook isn’t requesting a breather, running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu makes the calls for when to sub Cook out for Alexander Mattison.
But Cook’s game-breaking ability alters plans to pace him, including in Houston where he had a season-high 29 touches and played 74% of the offensive snaps. Only three running backs — Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and Houston’s David Johnson — are playing at a higher rate than Cook in the first quarter of the season.
“We try to spot him throughout the course of the ballgame,” Zimmer said. “But when it gets to the end of the ballgame, we’ve got to get Dalvin in there. When the game’s on the line, we’ve got to get him in there.”
Availability for every moment is another thing Cook can emulate from Sanders, who missed only seven games in his 10-year NFL career.
“That’s what it’s all about in this league,” Cook said. “What can you do the next week?”