If the Vikings want to turn their season around, it’s going to start with the run game. It has not only been the team’s best position group this season but one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL.
The Vikings entered Week 4 ranked eighth in the league at 146.7 rushing yards per game and No. 1 overall with 6.03 yards per rush.
Dalvin Cook showed last week that he can be the best running back in the NFL when he finished with a career-high 181 yards on only 22 carries, an incredible 8.23 yards per carry. He has four of the Vikings’ nine touchdowns.
And while fans are obviously nervous about the Vikings’ 0-3 start to their season, their first three opponents are a combined 8-1. Playing Sunday at Houston, against an 0-3 Texans team that has been outscored 95-57, should give this club a shot to get on the right track.
And with the NFL adding a wild-card team to each conference this season there is no doubt the Vikings can battle back toward .500 and make a push to be one of the top seven teams in the NFC.
At the start of the season, Kirk Cousins told me what he thought about this collection of running backs.
“Our running back group, I love our group,” the quarterback said. “I love what Dalvin Cook can do. Alex Mattison was very impressive as only a rookie last season, you’re excited about him taking another step as a second-year player. You add what Mike Boone has shown and what he can do. You add Ameer Abdullah. And I love C.J. Ham and what he is capable of.”
It’s a small sample size, but so far Cook and Mattison both are in the top 20 in the league in yards per attempt, and while the offensive line has given up more pressures on Cousins than last season, the Vikings have shown they can run the ball.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said at his news conference this past week that he has been impressed not only with the backs but the line coming together behind offensive line coach Rick Dennison and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
“I just think we have been grinding,” Kubiak said. “Running the ball and yards per carry, we have actually done pretty good throughout the course of the first three weeks. It was excellent [last Sunday]. We have some guys battling together. [Right guard] Dru [Samia] is in his second season as a pro. I think he’ll continue to get better.
“Rick did a great job game plan-wise, him and KP. You know as they work the run game and what they want to do, hopefully we can continue to grow from that. And when we continue to run the ball well, we’ll find a way to make some big plays in the passing game.”
Looking for more plays
For as difficult a loss as last week’s was for the Vikings, if they can play that way offensively they are going to win a lot of games the rest of the way.
Unlike the first two weeks, the Vikings didn’t get dominated on time of possession against Tennessee, as they held the ball for 28 minutes, 28 seconds compared to 31:32 for the Titans. That enabled the Vikings to run 62 plays compared to 49 against the Packers and 47 against the Colts.
“No. 1, the first thing to happen were snaps, we got a lot more snaps in the game and played much better from that standpoint,” Kubiak said. “From those snaps I think you’re going to see more people get involved. That was a step in the right direction. We still didn’t get it done. Could have played much better there at the end of the game, but a lot of good things happened that we need to hang on to that and grow from that.”
Warren praises Gophers
The Big Ten is seeing all its football players get waivers to play this season after declaring as pros, including the great Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who officially rejoined his team this past week.
And there’s no doubt that Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren played a big part in that process.
He told me in September that working with the Gophers staff, coaches and players had been one of the most important parts of the process of bringing Big Ten football back for competition later this month.
“One thing about the University of Minnesota, from President [Joan] Gable to [athletic director] Mark Coyle, to Coach [P.J.] Fleck and all the coaches and the student-athletes, they are first class,” Warren said. “They have handled this in a first-class manner. I know there was disappointment [when sports were postponed], just like everyone else. They handled it in a first-class manner.
“The leadership between President Gable and Mark Coyle and Coach Fleck from a football standpoint regarding these football issues has been incredibly professional and incredibly thoughtful and supportive. Trust me, we have had to deal with some really complicated, difficult issues, but you can work through those when you have support and you feel like you’re focused in the same direction.”
Warren also said at the time that his belief was that Bateman and players like him should be reinstated by the NCAA.
The fact that Bateman is back means the Gophers will be not only one of the best teams in the Big Ten but one of the best in the country.
• Pro Football Focus on Vikings rookie receiver Justin Jefferson’s breakout game in Week 3: “Jefferson was the highest-graded wideout of the week and should be in line for a much bigger season now that he has earned added responsibility in Minnesota. The prospect that he can, in fact, replace what they lost in Stefon Diggs all of a sudden doesn’t seem crazy.”
• There are going to be 31 NFL teams, including the Vikings, who kick themselves for not drafting Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. before he went No. 45 overall to Tampa Bay in April. Winfield was named NFL rookie defensive player of the month for September. In three games, he had 23 tackles, two sacks, three QB hits, two passes defended and a forced fumble, playing all but one defensive snap.
• Brian Anderson served as Gophers running backs and wide receivers coach under Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys from 2011 to ’16 and is now the running backs coach for Kansas State, which shocked No. 3 Oklahoma in a 38-35 victory in Norman last weekend.
• Speaking of Kill, he is now at TCU as special assistant to head coach Gary Patterson, in charge of offense, though Sonny Cumbie remains the offensive coordinator. The Horned Frogs had 457 yards of offense Saturday in their 33-31 victory at No. 9 Texas, a week after they finished with 512 yards of offense in a 37-34 home loss to Iowa State. … Claeys is in his first season as linebackers coach at Virginia Tech, briefly rejoining Kill last December before Kill left the Hokies a month later. Virginia Tech won its opener vs. N.C. State and faced Duke on Saturday.
• Former Bemidji State All-America defensive back Gunner Olszewski is in his second season with the New England Patriots but is on injured reserve. Olszewski, who has been converted to a receiver and punt returner, is only the third Bemidji State alum to appear in an NFL regular-season game.