The Vikings began the season with every intention of again leaning heavily on Dalvin Cook, the Pro Bowl running back who "makes us go," as coach Mike Zimmer put it.
Cook sprained his right ankle in Week 2 at Arizona, and has only touched the ball nine times in the three games since then. He sat out for the second time in three weeks Sunday, after a brief pregame workout led Cook and the Vikings to decide he was better off resting.
The commitment to the running game hasn't changed with Cook out, though. And in both of the Vikings' victories this season, the player who's made them go has been Alexander Mattison.
In the 19-17 victory over Detroit, Mattison carried 25 times — one short of the career high he set two weeks ago — and gained 113 yards on the ground. He caught all seven of his targets, becoming a significant part of the passing game on a day where the Lions rolled safeties toward Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen to neutralize the receivers in the second half. (The Vikings' offensive strategy Sunday, it should be noted, irked fans to the point of booing the team off the field at the end of the first half, but as they stuck to their M.O., Mattison was at the center of it.)
All told, Mattison had 32 touches, marking the second time he has crossed the 30-touch barrier this season.
Since the beginning of 2020, only 10 teams have a player who has recorded a 30-touch game. The Vikings, who used Cook that much four times last season and have done it with Mattison twice this year, are the only team with two.
Mattison is one of four backs in the NFL to cross the 30-touch threshold in a game this season; Tennessee's Derrick Henry, Cincinnati's Joe Mixon and Carolina's Christian McCaffrey are the others. Henry and Mattison are the only backs to do it twice.
"It's hard to score in this league, hard to get yards in this league, so it's obviously a testament to the preparation put in throughout the week, and that whole line up front they continue to fight," Mattison said Sunday. "I'd go to war with those guys any day of the week, so all credit to them, all credit to us just being a unit and at the end of the day, it's us playing together trying to get a victory and we were able to do that today."
He had the Vikings' only touchdown of the day on a second-quarter reception, running an angle route behind deep outs from Tyler Conklin and Jefferson. Mattison got inside leverage on Jalen Reeves-Maybin, slipped the linebacker's ankle tackle attempt and bounced off A.J. Parker before carrying two defenders into the end zone.
"That might've been a miscommunication in the defense; I'm not really sure," Mattison said. "Usually that's a man [coverage] beater and we were able to beat them on that play. ... [I] felt a guy on my hip and I knew I could probably outrun him, but there was a guy that was to my left so I let the guy on my right spin me around a little bit so I could break that tackle. From there I saw the end zone to my left and I saw the defender, so I knew I just had to get in."
His longest gain of the day — a 48-yard run in the third quarter — came off a cut he used to beat Derrick Barnes on a play where the rookie linebacker had Mattison lined up for a 2-yard loss.
"It was a situation where, breaking some tackles and coming off some tackles I couldn't run any faster," said Mattison, who was brought down at the Lions 25. "I just tried to break that tackle at the end and almost got out of it but I couldn't hit my other gear."
Mattison's description of why he didn't score on the play does highlight one of the differences between him and a healthy Cook, and his fumble at the two-minute mark Sunday nearly cost the Vikings the game. Cook, who fumbled in overtime of the Vikings' Week 1 loss to the Bengals, was right there on the sideline to encourage Mattison after the play.
"[He was] just reiterating that it happens to the best of us," Mattison said. "Just to keep my head up and don't worry. He told me, God got me. So that's a big brother to me, and he always has my back."
What it all means for the Vikings going forward is an interesting question.
After Cook returned from a groin injury last year, the Vikings made it clear they would use him as much as they could, playing Mattison for more than 10 snaps only twice in their next nine games while getting Cook the ball at least 30 times in four of those games. There's a clear difference between Cook and Mattison when both are healthy, and the way the Vikings use Mattison when Cook is available would imply they believe as much.
But Mattison has now played more than 60% of the Vikings' offensive snaps twice in three weeks, and he has handled the workload well enough to suggest he could be a viable complement to Cook that might help the Vikings keep one of their most important players fresh.
After tearing a knee ligament and missing 12 games in 2017, Cook missed five in 2018 because of a hamstring injury; sat out the Vikings' final two games in 2019 to rest shoulder injuries before the playoffs; and missed one game because of a groin injury last year. Mattison, who makes $850,000 this year, could be a valuable insurance policy for the Vikings' $63 million investment in Cook.
Looking further ahead, Mattison will still be only 24 when he hits free agency after the 2022 season; Cook turns 27 next August, and has only $2 million of his 2023 salary currently guaranteed against injury. The 34-month age difference between the two players could lead the Vikings to an inflection point after next season, as could the presence of affordable running backs in the draft.
For now, Mattison has helped the Vikings survive Cook's absence by providing a reasonable facsimile — right down to the heavy workload the team asks its running backs to handle.
TWO AREAS OF CONCERN
Offensive penalties: The Vikings committed three offensive penalties Sunday that cost them 30 yards and had adverse effects on two drives. They had to settle for a field goal after Chris Herndon's holding penalty wiped out a 20-yard screen pass to Adam Thielen in the second quarter, and Herndon's crackback block in the third quarter put the Vikings in a third-and-16, which led to a punt one play later. The Vikings converted a first down after Oli Udoh's holding penalty, and they might have had reason to quibble with the calls on Herndon, but in a two-point game where they committed a total of seven penalties for 74 yards, the flags on the offense were particularly critical.
Thielen and Jefferson's quiet second half: After catching five passes for 104 yards in the first half, Jefferson only had two catches in the third and fourth quarters. Thielen dropped a pass and had his 20-yarder called back because of Herndon's penalty, but didn't officially register a reception until the game's final drive. Cousins said the Lions played quite a bit of two-deep safety coverage, also employing cloud coverage that effectively functioned like a double team on Jefferson. But the fact Detroit was able to take both receivers out of the game probably also owes something to a conservative game plan that had the Vikings running six times on second-and-long. Without Dalvin Cook, the Vikings need to find ways to get Thielen and Jefferson the ball and scheme them open, even when teams are keying on them.
Cousins has thrown a couple passes this year where he said he went downfield because he knew the Vikings needed a big play, but he's generally not the type to throw contested balls to his best two receivers if his coverage reads don't take him there. That said, the Vikings have one second-half offensive touchdown this season, and with Cook telling Fox's Jen Hale his ankle is still only 70% healed, he might not be 100% healthy until after the Week 7 bye. That means the Vikings need to find ways to get Thielen and Jefferson the ball and scheme them open, even when teams are keying on them.
TWO TRENDS TO WATCH
How the Vikings use Everson Griffen: He started for the first time this season on Sunday, playing a season-high of 49 snaps while registering two sacks and six total pressures. And while Griffen was used primarily in passing situations (38 of his 49 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus), he got some work in the Vikings' base defense and played more than any Vikings defensive lineman other than Danielle Hunter.
Griffen wasn't stellar against the run — he got pushed inside by a down block on D'Andre Swift's 12-yard run in the first quarter, and missed an arm tackle on Swift in the third quarter — but he got into the backfield on a Jamaal Williams run in the first quarter (while the smoke alarm was going off inside U.S. Bank Stadium!). Griffen continues to show he can do things other than rush the passer, like dropping into coverage. And when it's been time to go get the quarterback, the 33-year-old has been a revelation from the Vikings' past. He has four sacks, and is 15th among NFL edge defenders in PFF's Pass Rushing Productivity metric; Hunter, who has six sacks, ranks 24th in the metric.
Second-and-long runs: The Vikings faced 12 second downs where they had at least 8 yards to go for a first down on Sunday. They ran the ball on six of those plays, as offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak continued a trend established by the Vikings' last two play-callers, Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak. In 2019, while in neutral situations (trailing or leading by seven points or fewer), the Vikings ran the ball 39% of the time on second-and-8 or longer. That rate ranked fifth-highest in the league, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Last season, the Vikings were second at 45%; this year, they were ranked sixth in the league through four weeks, at 38%. On Sunday, the six second-and-long runs gained a total of 12 yards. Two of those runs came when the Vikings were trying to make the Lions burn their timeouts toward the end of the game, and Cousins picked up first downs after two of them with long third-down completions to Jefferson in the first quarter. But the Vikings' willingness to bet on their ground game on second-and-long still remains a peculiar trend in their offense, and it yielded hardly any production against Detroit.
ONE BIG QUESTION
How should Vikings fans be feeling about the team after the narrow win over the Lions? When wins are the only thing that really matter in the NFL, and the Vikings have lost three games by seven points or less this season (all to teams with winning records), there's no need to apologize for a two-point victory that kept them from dropping to 1-4. Someone had to win the game; there are no judges scoring things on degree of difficulty in the NFL. Cousins again came through in the last-minute spots where he's often derided, and Joseph hit a 55-yarder three weeks after missing from 37. The Vikings' playoff chances are only 24%, according to FiveThirtyEight, but that's much better than they would have been if they had lost to the Lions and fallen to 1-4.
But the next seven weeks bring six games against teams with a combined record of 20-9, and if the Vikings aren't better than needing to save themselves from a blown lead at home against the Lions, it's worth wondering how they will hold up over the course of four road games between now and the end of November. They have put themselves in position to beat teams like Arizona and Cleveland; they came perilously close to the kind of loss against Detroit that would have invited questions about their future. If they are the kind of team that's just good enough to play a bunch of close games, losing some to good teams and winning some against bad teams, they might not be going anywhere. They will have every opportunity over the next six games to prove they're something more than that.