Vikings

Second Look: Vikings First Half Abounded in Explosive Outside Runs

Photo Credit: Ben Ludeman (USA Today Sports)

Luke Inman contributed to this story.

The final two kneel downs of Sunday’s 28-12 win gave the Minnesota Vikings 38 rushes on the day. With nearly quadruple the number of carries as they had passes, the Vikings run-pass balance highlighted one of the most “unique” games quarterback Kirk Cousins said he’s every played in.

Most $84 million quarterbacks aren’t asked to pass 10 times. But when the running game is working the way it was Sunday, why upset the status quo?

“Any time you have it, you feed off it,” Cousins said. “You use it to your advantage, and the crowd feeds off it, and it’s a snowball rolling down the hill. You could lose momentum quickly with a turnover, a sack, whatever, and you’ve got to find a way to get it back. Certainly when you have a few productive runs, everybody is feeling that good energy in the huddle, in the stadium, and it’s a great place to be.”

Minnesota relied especially heavily on pitches and outside runs to work around Atlanta’s frequent eight-man boxes, a plan that worked to near perfection. The Vikings rushed for 172 yards. About half that yardage came on five explosive plays in the first half — three from Dalvin Cook, two from Alexander Mattison — helping them build a 21-0 lead at halftime.

In our weekly “Second Look” series, we’ll dive more closely into those five carries, which set the tone for Minnesota’s win.

PLAY 1: 1st Quarter, 2nd and 9, ATL 40
PERSONNEL: 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR

A theme on many of Minnesota’s biggest runs was pre-snap motion from wideouts or tight ends, which we saw here on Cook’s first big run.

Rookie Irv Smith Jr. motioned from right to left, signifying — as Cousins said after the game — a “change of strength” in the formation, putting more bodies on one side of center. With Smith moving left, he diverted the attention of corner Isaiah Oliver, who followed Smith. That left one less body to block as Cook took the pitch and sprinted outside to the right.

Edge rusher Takk McKinley failed to seal the edge against the blocking of Josh Kline, while right tackle Brian O’Neill took care of DT Grady Jarrett, setting up Cook in space.

“The offensive line was moving people up front,” said Cook. “We got it going early. The defense kind of sparked this thing, and we took care of business by punching the ball in which got the momentum going.”

Kyle Rudolph had the best downfield blocks, redeeming himself for a holding call that wiped away Cook’s 13-yard run on the game’s first drive. Rudolph got hands on safety Keanu Neal and pursuing defensive end Adrian Clayborn, neither of whom could make the tackle.

Cook has historically shown an amazing ability to beat defenders who have angles, and as he did on his 85-yard touchdown run in the preseason, he split through two tacklers (in this case Neal and Tyeler Davison) who appeared to be in position.

The third-year back capped his 21-yard run by plowing through linebacker Deion Jones for an extra three yards (he might be lucky to have avoided a flag for lowering his helmet). This run showcased a well-devised scheme, skill players blocking downfield and Cook’s talent in space.

PLAY 2: 1st Quarter, 2nd and 10, ATL 19
PERSONNEL: 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR

 

The pre-snap motion on this play, instead of clearing bodies out of the way, gave the Vikings a downfield blocker with forward momentum. Adam Thielen got Oliver moving again with a motion to the right, followed by a jet motion back to the left as the ball was snapped.

The first man in for Atlanta, Clayborn, forced Cook to quickly move laterally. Then the skill players again stood out with their blocking. Chad Beebe occupied Neal long enough to let Cook by, Rudolph slowed Jarrett on the edge, and Thielen — already with a full head of steam — neutralized Oliver to get Cook in the end zone for a two-score lead.

Though Zimmer didn’t specify which runs, he hinted after the game that Cook might’ve been improvising on some of his explosive carries.

“A couple of those plays were designed to go inside,” Zimmer said “and he just outran the perimeter. So he’s a terrific weapon for us.”

PLAY 3: 1st Quarter, 1st and 10, MIN 19
PERSONNEL: 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR

Back in “22” personnel, Mattison got the call on the final play of the first quarter for 23 yards, Minnesota’s longest run of the day.

Once again, Smith shifted pre-snap to move the Falcons linebackers over. Just like on Cook’s first big run, Mattison took a pitch to the right and followed his convoy. Rudolph put together another good effort to contain Allen Bailey on the edge. Brian O’Neill and Josh Kline led the flow of the play out to the right perimeter where O’Neill took out Vic Beasley and Kline handled not only Jones but also Oliver, who got stuck behind the backpedaling Jones (tough day for the second-year DB).

Mattison looked very Cook-like slithering through a small window to get to the next level, then hurdling Ricardo Allen and spinning around De’Vondre Campbell to add 10 yards to the end of his run.

“We didn’t do what we needed to do,” said Jarrett, the Falcons defensive tackle. “They executed well and kept getting outside. We need to address that if we want to have a good defense.”

PLAY 4: 2nd Quarter, 2nd and 4, ATL 40
PERSONNEL: 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR

Finally, a run that actually went inside of the tackle. The Vikings stretched this one out to the right and just let the right side of their line win assignments. Rudolph, O’Neill and Kline teamed up to free Cook for this 22-yard gallop.

Minnesota also lined two tight ends up on the right of the formation, Smith and fellow rookie Brandon Dillon, who got upfield to block Neal and Kemal Ishmael. Cook eventually got angled out at the 18-yard line by Ricardo Allen, setting up Mattison for another jolt on the next play.

PLAY 5: 2nd Quarter, 1st and 10, ATL 18
PERSONNEL: 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR

The Vikings went right back to the ground with Cook getting a breather, putting the ball in Mattison’s hands out of “22” personnel. Smith’s motion drew Ishmael away from the play and Mattison took the pitch left.

It hasn’t been the smoothest transition to left guard for Pat Elflein, but the former third-round pick is best when he gets to display his mobility. Elflein got upfield on this play to eliminate Neal, while Reiff, Ham and Bradbury all laid complementary blocks to free Mattison, who nearly scored his first career touchdown.

“You never know what you are going to get and people underestimate how fast Alexander really is,” Cook said. “He is a great complement to me. Our offense did a great job of bringing him in.”

It’s only one game, but it’s an encouraging early sign that this new-look Vikings offense was serious about changing its identity.

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