The Minnesota Vikings built their 2019 offense around the basic tenet that Dalvin Cook would be the engine.
With Cook fueling an efficient and sometimes explosive run game, defenses would respect the rushing attack in a way they didn’t a season ago. In turn, Kirk Cousins would have the luxury of using play-action to work the ball downfield.
That formula worked well enough for the Vikings to win 10 games and clinch a playoff spot before even taking the field in Week 16, but since Cook’s rash of injuries struck, Minnesota’s running game hasn’t been the same.
“You’ve seen the kind of football that we play with him,” said receiver Stefon Diggs. “He definitely changes the game, as far as in the running game and the passing game.”
Cook has been a full participant in practice this week and expects to suit up Sunday for the first time since Week 15. How he’ll respond to contact in Sunday’s game, however, is unknown.
The third-year running back suffered his initial chest injury in Week 11 against the Broncos. From that game through Minnesota’s last meaningful game against the Green Bay Packers, they averaged the third-lowest yards per carry in football at 3.5 and rushed for the fewest first downs (22). They were fourth-worst in short-yardage rushing situations and last in runs of 10 yards or more.
Cook had seven games with 20 or more carries out of the team’s first 10. But since his injury against Denver, he’s received no more than 18 carries, in part because of his inability to stay on the field. Since Week 13, Cook departed two games early — in Seattle where he aggravated his chest injury and in Los Angeles where he suffered a different shoulder injury. The latter caused him to miss the season’s final two games, and with playoff seeding at stake in Week 16, Cook watched as the running game faltered in his absence against Green Bay.
“That’s what our offense is,” said receiver Adam Thielen. “We are a run-first team and a run-first offense and everything kind of feeds off of that. We have to get back to doing what we do well and that’s running the ball and having success there so we can really open up the playbook and do a lot of things off that. That’s going to continue to be our mindset, and that’s what we’re going to have to do to win.”
The Vikings didn’t need much on the ground to dispatch of the Lions and Chargers, but their running game was non-existent in losses to Seattle and Green Bay, two playoff teams. The juxtaposition from Game 1 to Game 2 against the Packers was eye-opening. With Cook, the Vikings averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Without him, 3.6.
“He’s just a tremendous player,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, “and obviously having your best players on the field helps you. We’re excited to have him [Sunday] and expect him to be a great contributor as he has been all season.”
Dalvin Cook says he’s “ready to go” after sitting out the last two games of the season. pic.twitter.com/gNo6XrKl1r
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) December 30, 2019
At the halfway point of the season Cook was garnering outside consideration as an MVP candidate while staying in lockstep with Carolina’s Christian McCaffery for the league rushing title. At that point in the year, he was second in the NFL in avoided tackles with 43 and the league leader in runs of 15 yards or more. Through eight weeks, Pro Football Focus assigned him the league’s second-highest rushing grade.
While Cook’s second-half dropoff is noticeable, the first-half excellence still means something. It was enough to establish that Cook, when healthy, must be accounted for defensively, which helps the passing game. Cousins has been very good most of the year, but he was at his best with a healthy Cook. Splitting his season into two halves, Cousins saw his play-action passer rating (and overall passer rating) dip about 15 points from the first half to the second. He also saw his play-action yards per attempt drop from 10.7 to 8.4 and his overall yards per attempt drop from a league-best 9.3 to 7.0.
The second half of the season not only included an injured Cook but an injured Thielen, who hurt his hamstring on Oct. 20. Both plan to be on the field Sunday, giving the Vikings their healthiest offense, on paper, since the first quarter of Week 7.
“We definitely need everybody, every piece,” Cook said this week. “Everybody’s going to be a key piece to this puzzle. Having all our guys healthy in the backfield, all around on the field, is very important for us because we’re going to need everybody when we’re going to New Orleans this week.”
The Vikings head into Sunday’s game with potential advantages on offense when considering the Saints’ injury situation on the defensive side of the ball. Both their defensive line and secondary have missing pieces, so a fully-functional Vikings offense could do damage.
It’ll need to with Drew Brees quarterbacking the other side.
“The odds of having everybody at full strength going into the playoffs is very low around the league,” Cook said. “We’ve got everybody healthy and everybody’s going to be ready go. It should be a fun matchup.”