The assumption during the week as the Minnesota Vikings prepared to play the Chicago Bears was that Latavius Murray would take the reins as the team’s workhorse back in the place of Dalvin Cook, who tore his ACL in Week 4 against the Detroit Lions.
While Murray got the start against the Bears, it was Jerick McKinnon who wound up getting the bulk of the reps as the Vikings beat the Bears 20-17 on Monday.
The fourth-year back got 47 snaps in the game compared to Murray’s 22. He received 16 carries and made six catches, totaling 146 yards from scrimmage — 51 through the air and 95 on the ground, including a 58-yard touchdown run. He also did most of his damage after halftime. McKinnon had just eight rushing yards and 23 receiving yards heading into the third quarter, then proceeded to gain 115 yards in the second half.
“Murray started out the game good, had good runs early and kind of tapered off a little bit,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “and Jerick started off a little slow, and he got going toward the end.”
It was McKinnon’s best rushing game since Oct. 19, 2014 against the Buffalo Bills and his most yards from scrimmage since Sept. 28, 2014 against the Atlanta Falcons. That season he was a rookie filling in for the suspended Adrian Peterson. Now he is in a contract year looking to earn a new deal this offseason.
McKinnon had a rough game one week ago in the Vikings’ loss to Detroit, gaining zero yards from scrimmage, dropping a pass and fumbling out of the Wildcat formation.
On Monday, he nearly lost the football again when he fumbled a kick return with the Vikings leading 10-9. Fortunately for McKinnon, the ball trickled out of bounds to keep Minnesota in possession. Five plays later, he was off to the races with the team’s longest run of the season.
“I thought it was good, he showed his resiliency coming back after that fumble on the kickoff,” said Zimmer.
His most successful run of the night went to the right side of the line, but most of McKinnon’s other efforts went to the left or up the middle. He also attempted over half his runs as the single back with Keenum under center. McKinnon, for his career, is much more comfortable carrying the ball with the quarterback under center, and that’s been accentuated even more this season with McKinnon averaging two yards more per carry under center as opposed to shotgun.
Considering that Murray admitted last week that his ankle may not yet feel 100 percent after undergoing surgery in the offseason, McKinnon’s greater role should not be a great surprise.
While he may not possess the same big-play prowess like the rookie dynamo Cook, he might still be the best running back on the Vikings’ roster.
“Each week’s gonna be a different week,” said Zimmer when probed about his plan for the two running backs. “We’ll just have to see how it goes this week.”