Another week, another game where Dalvin Cook proves he’s worth every penny of his new contract and that as long as he remains healthy and attached to a Mike Zimmer game plan he’ll obliterate opposing defenses and the record books. Once again the Vikings put themselves in a position where they didn’t have to play catch-up, could dictate the terms of when they threw the football and involved everyone outside of Cook and Kirk Cousins in the blocking scheme.
The results, as you well know, produced another dominant showing for Cook, another win for the Vikings, and more platitudes for Minnesota’s offensive line and auxiliary blockers.
But overlooked as the NFL trade deadline expired with minimal fanfare or player movement was the fact that Riley Reiff remained a Viking. Post-deadline reports indicated Minnesota had discussions with the Tennessee Titans about sending Reiff to Nashville, but ultimately, for the second time, Reiff trade rumors failed to come to fruition.
Among those most happy by Reiff staying put: Cook and Cousins, because Reiff is doing things that are helping the Vikings salvage the season and — for better or worse — maybe even force their way into the playoff conversation.
TWICE IS NICE
Each lineman’s ability to make blocks at the second level is key to the Vikings’ zone blocking scheme. Oftentimes this requires blocking two or more defenders on the same play: hitting a defender at the line of scrimmage, either as part of a double-team or holding him up enough to allow another blocker to reach him, then scraping off that block and finding another defender to shield off or knock down.
Against the Lions, Reiff had several occasions to make such a block — for starters, on the first play of the game:
If Reiff sustains his block on No. 58 just a little longer instead of hitting him and bouncing off, Cook probably goes the distance on this play. Instead, the Vikings have to settle for a gain of 12. First-world running game problems, right?
Later in the game Reiff didn’t even need to make an initial block, just get to the linebacker and wall him off. This time he stuck with the block and Cook went behind him for a 70-yard touchdown:
Note that the play is so well schemed and/or blocked — or the Lions are so out of sync defensively — that fullback C.J. Ham runs through the hole looking for someone to hit and can’t find anyone. “Too many blockers for not enough defenders” is the kind of problem all running games wish they could have.
GAINING AN EDGE
For a back with the vision and cutback talents of Cook, the ability for a blocker to seal the edge presents all kinds of opportunities. While tight ends were tasked with those duties more frequently a week ago against the Green Bay Packers, against the Detroit Lions it was Reiff on many occasions opening the door for a Cook scamper.
Reiff turns the defender just enough that he loses any outside contain he may have had, and Cook is around the edge and into the secondary.
Depending on where the play is designed to go and where the edge defender is playing, Reiff’s best move may be to simply kick him out and let Cook cut behind him. And when the block is done right, Alexander Mattison can look like Cook.
The Vikings have had tremendous success controlling the edge the last two weeks. This week against the Chicago Bears presents a bigger challenge in that area, but all it takes is one well-blocked play to spring Cook for a long touchdown.
HOLDING UP ON AN ISLAND WITHOUT (BEING CALLED FOR) HOLDING
Key to any pass protection scheme is the ability to win one-on-one battles when necessary. Helping with a tight end or running back is nice, but when a tackle can take his edge rusher out of the play all by himself it opens many, many doors.
For the most part Reiff has been living up to his end of that bargain, thanks in no small part to the inconsistent application of holding rules by NFL officials. It’s absolutely true that holding could be called on every play in the NFL, but previously the rule of thumb had been if a blocker’s hands got outside the defender’s frame you’d see the yellow flag come out.
Nowadays officials are more inclined to let the action continue so long as the defender isn’t turned or redirected by a hold or grab or outright tackle. Here’s an example of Reiff holding up and probably holding, but getting away with it as Cousins completes an eight-yard pass over the middle.
Remember, it’s only holding if it gets called.
Reiff did get flagged for holding on a running play later in the game (a pretty weak call in my opinion, but I fully admit to a strong offensive lineman bias), but hands outside the frame or no he held up on the edge and was charged with allowing just one hurry on the afternoon. If he’s able to do as well when facing Khalil Mack this week, it bodes well for the Vikings.
NEXT UP: CHICAGO
Handing it to the Lions (18th vs. the run, 22nd in pass rush per PFF) and Packers (21st against the run, 19th in pass rush) is one thing; now the Vikings get the Bears, who rank 11th in stopping the run and sixth in rushing the passer.
Moreover, it means the tackles have to handle Mack (seven sacks, four hits, 26 hurries this season) while the interior battles Akiem Hicks (four sacks, nine hits, 19 hurries this year). Mack racked up a 91.7 pass rushing grade in the first meeting with Minnesota last year, and while the Vikings ducked Hicks they surrendered big games to Chicago interior defenders Eddie Goldman (81.5 against the run, 84.8 pass rush) and Nick Williams (78.9 against the run, 73.0 pass rush).
Now a Lion, Williams had one hit and two hurries while posing a 73.5 pass rush grade against the Vikings last week. If that’s what he’s capable of without much of a supporting cast, there is definite cause for concern as to what sort of havoc Hicks may be able to wreak. It will be a true test of just how far Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury and Dakota Dozier have come as a unit.
On the bright side, Chicago’s offensive struggles should allow the Vikings to once again lean heavily on the ground game without having to play from behind and upset their anticipated game script. Over the past fortnight Cook has torched two-thirds of the Vikings’ NFC North opponents; if the line — and auxiliary blockers like Ham and the tight ends — keep contributing at the same level, a division sweep is not out of reach.