Even as head coach Mike Zimmer labored over his decision to relieve former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo of his duties, it’s unlikely he envisioned a Kevin Stefanski-led offense that would produce touchdowns on its first three drives.
Yet that’s exactly what happened in Minnesota’s 41-17 drubbing of the Miami Dolphins.
The Vikings offense produced 21 points in the first quarter and 17 points in the fourth quarter. The lackluster middle stanzas left plenty of room for improvement as the Dolphins actually climbed back into contention at 21-17 before the Vikings’ late surge. But their 21-0 start gave them enough leeway to absorb some adversity in Stefanski’s debut.
“I thought he did well,” said Zimmer. “He was very calm, never got panicked at all during the day. I think there were times when he said something like, ‘I need to get back on schedule,’ or something like that, but it wasn’t really anything chaotic. I thought the other coaches helped him a lot today.”
The Vikings got the ball first and drove 76 yards in six plays. Dalvin Cook got involved immediately with runs for six and 26 yards and a screen for 27 yards with a key block by Mike Remmers. Latavius Murray executed runs of six and three yards as Minnesota quickly included both running backs, as they did throughout the day. The only non-running back to register a catch on the drive (since Adam Thielen’s reception was wiped out by a penalty) was Stefon Diggs on a 13-yard touchdown to get the scoring started.
“Our running back is running crazy, our offensive line is blocking, our quarterback is balling,” said Diggs, “so I’m excited for the things to come.”
Drive No. 2 took six plays, 60 yards as Minnesota rushed it four times and passed it twice as they involved third-string tight end Tyler Conklin on a 20-yard pass along the sideline. The Vikings used a heavy dose of “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends) to pave running lanes for Cook, who got three carries for five, 11 and 13 yards, the latter going for a touchdown where he got key blocks from David Morgan and C.J. Ham and beat cornerback Bobby McCain to the outside.
“We had the exact same play called last week to the exact same side,” said Cousins. “The corner was unblocked, exactly like he was today, and the corner made the tackle last week. On the sidelines I said to him, ‘Next time, the corner doesn’t make that tackle.’ … Today, I handed it off, and I had a front-row seat.”
The Vikings got run-blocking stalwart Morgan back for the first time since Nov. 4, and he delivered two edge-sealing blocks on Minnesota’s second and third scores. The Vikings set a season-high with 220 rushing yards.
“When you have a guy who can block an end and go down there and block a linebacker,” Cook said, “it’s big. We use Kyle Rudolph a lot, and to get him a break and have Dave go in there and do the dirty work, that’s big.”
The third drive came just as easily as the first two. Four rushes and three passes took the Vikings 70 yards for a three-score lead. Minnesota faced its only third down of the first three drives and converted with a seven-yard pass to Diggs on 3rd and 5. Diggs also had a terrific back-shoulder catch for 17 yards, and Thielen got in the mix with a diving 14-yard catch along the sideline as Cousins lined up under center and used play-action more frequently than in recent weeks. Murray had runs of five, four and 18 yards on the drive and delivered a carbon copy of Cook’s touchdown for his own TD. Ham and Morgan laid key blocks as McCain was again beaten to the pylon.
“We were hitting five, six yards a carry, and you know Cook is a pretty talented player, and when he’s got the ball in his hands, typically good things happen,” said Zimmer. “Latavius is obviously a good, hard, physical running back, so I thought all that was good.”
The Vikings had 8.3 yards per carry and 10.6 yards per play on those three drives, rushing it 12 times and passing it seven.
Minnesota had been held scoreless in the first quarter in each of their last three losses, but their offense under Stefanski started fast and didn’t relax until it was up by 21.
“It was simpler,” said Thielen, “but we definitely still had everything that we needed. And again, Coach did a great job of keeping the defense on their heels.”