As the Vikings stood along their sideline on Sunday night waiting for the start of the national anthem, tackle Rashod Hill looked up and said to center Pat Elflein, “You know who’s looking down on us, right? Tony is.”
“We started to recite all the one-liners and things Tony would be saying to us at this very moment, if he were here,” Elflein said. “Even though he’s not physically here, I feel like he’s still coaching us.”
If there were a game where the Vikings could have used a bit of Tony Sparano’s pugnacious spirit, Sunday night was it. They had run for only 22 yards in a loss the previous Sunday against the Chicago Bears, in a game that coach Mike Zimmer admitted had stung the team, and came into another Sunday night matchup against the Green Bay Packers knowing they would need better from their offense if they wanted to keep their playoff hopes in good standing.
Even if the method by which the Vikings revived their run game might have been a bit foreign to Sparano, its innovative spirit was not. Mixing a handful of jet sweeps to their skill position players with a productive fourth-quarter ground game, the Vikings ran for 91 yards on 29 attempts in a 24-14 victory over the Packers that seemed to assuage some of their offensive concerns for the moment.
“I really liked the balance we had offensively, the way we were spreading the ball around,” Zimmer said. “We were really, really close on breaking probably five or six runs for big plays; we didn’t quite get the last guy blocked, but I thought we did a nice job there.”
Before the Vikings took over with 12:48 left, looking to take time off the clock while leading by 10 points, they’d run the ball on only 15 of their first 47 plays, counting a designed run and a pair of scrambles from Cousins.
They didn’t have a run longer than 12 yards, and their three longest gains of the night came on decidedly nontraditional plays: a Stefon Diggs jet sweep that went for 12 yards, a Cousins scramble for 11 and a jet sweep to Dalvin Cook — who lined up in the slot with Diggs lined up as a running back behind Cousins — that gained 9.
After the Bears game, though, the Vikings were at least able to find some productive runs against the Packers, and ran for 31 of their 56 yards on a fourth-quarter drive that used 6:57.
“You get a little bit of space out there, and giving the ball to such good athletes in space — like a Diggs and [an Adam] Thielen and a Cook, that’s what they excel at,” center Pat Elflein said. “They have some room to work, and they’re so athletic, they can make guys miss, vs. trying to mush it up in the A gaps — which works, too, but you can complement that with some sweep plays. If you can give playmakers some room to work, they can make big plays out of it.”
Cousins, who played his first turnover-free game since Oct. 21, also tapped into a bit of the mobility he’d shown in Washington, where he ran for a total of 323 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons as a starter.
During his postgame news conference on Sunday, Cousins mentioned a sign in the team’s quarterback room that tells passers to get at least one first down with their feet in a game. And when Cousins and Zimmer were discussing outlets to avoid turnovers during a conversation last week, Zimmer reminded the quarterback that his mobility can be one such outlet.
“Basically what I told him is, ‘If you’ve got a quarterback that’s not going to run, defenses are going to play extra coverage; they’re not going to worry about that,’ ” Zimmer said. “I just think that adds to everything we did last night. He did it all spring against the defense. Sometimes, you talk about it, but maybe you don’t emphasize it until it shows up big during a game. Maybe just talking to him a little bit more helped him this week.”
The Vikings added to it by rekindling the screen game that had been a major part of their offense under Pat Shurmur but had gone dormant this season. Elflein used his mobility to get out in front of Dalvin Cook on the running back’s 26-yard touchdown reception, and Cook did the rest.
While players relaxed on a victory Monday, they will return to work on Wednesday with a difficult assignment ahead: preparing to face the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. As the Vikings were able to recapture a measure of their offensive pride against the Packers, though, a resourceful run game had a hand in making it happen.
“I mean, the Bears, they’re a tough defensive unit. You have guys like Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks; I mean, all their guys are good,” Elflein said. “It’s the NFL. Every night’s a tough night. But we just played better last night. We executed better, and everyone was doing their job.”