There’s little doubt if Mike Zimmer could turn back the clock to pre-1906 football — before the forward pass was legalized — he’d get that DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour in a heartbeat.
Sunday’s win over the Green Bay Packers was the next-best thing, as the Minnesota Vikings ran the ball 34 times, didn’t complete a pass more than 10 yards downfield and used three drives of 10-plus plays to shove the ball down Green Bay’s throat. It was a classic example of Zimmer football, and it served a dual purpose: putting the ball in the hands of Minnesota’s best player — Dalvin Cook — while limiting Aaron Rodgers’ opportunities to attack the Vikings’ young and banged-up defense.
Cook certainly deserves the bulk of the credit; after all, per Pro Football Focus he compiled 111 of his 163 rushing yards after contact — his second game with 100-plus rushing yards after contact. The much-maligned offensive line also deserves kudos, posting their best cumulative run (71.7) and pass (87.9) blocking grades of the year. Individually both Riley Reiff (81.3) and Ezra Cleveland (75.5) posted their best run-blocking marks of the season.
But it takes a village, and keys to the success of the Vikings’ running game were ancillary blockers who often go unnoticed during the flow of the game. Maybe that’s for the best; this week, immediately after Irv Smith got a hearty “atta boy” from analyst Darryl Johnston he committed drive-killing penalties on back-to-back plays to erase all the warm fuzzy feelings.
Pro Football Focus didn’t think much of Smith’s blocking efforts either, grading him out at 56.3 — just his fourth-best run-blocking mark this season. Fullback C.J. Ham (60.0, third-best run-blocking game this season) and Kyle Rudolph (59.3, sixth-best this year) also showed poorly in the PFF grades.
I beg to differ, and I’ll show you why.
THE OPENING DRIVE
The Vikings didn’t get the ball until more than eight minutes had run off the clock, and Rodgers had marched Green Bay down the field for a 7-0 lead. The first two plays were mirror images of each other, with the second more effective than the first. Both set the tone for how Minnesota’s tight ends would handle Green Bay’s edge defenders and spring Cook into the second level and beyond.
On many plays Rudolph was tasked with holding up the Packers’ edge defender, and despite the sub-60 PFF grade, he had more than his share of success. As an added bonus, successfully forcing the edge defender to consistently fight through blocks opened the door for a throwback to a wide-open Rudolph later in the drive.
Finally, to cap the drive the Vikings employed Rudolph in a double-team on the Green Bay defensive tackle while Smith kicked the edge defender outside and Cook strolled into the end zone.
Of course, we’ve seen the Vikings put together a dominant drive only to get away from — or be forced away from — the game plan later in the game. Fortunately for our purple-helmeted warriors, that wasn’t the case here.
THE SECOND DRIVE
Tyler Conklin saw some snaps early in the second drive, holding his own while not quite playing up to Rudolph’s level. His best work came on a play that never officially happened thanks to a Green Bay holding penalty, where he kicked out the edge to the left while a pulling Cleveland led up the hole for a would-have-been first down.
Smith and Rudolph returned later in the drive, with Smith throwing two blocks on this nine-yard gain by Cook:
That sort of block is key in the Vikings’ zone scheme, especially with a back like Cook who continues plays and is able to veer to daylight. Shielding one defender just enough to remove him from the play, then finding another defender to block is something Minnesota’s guards should aspire to. Hey, if they’re not going to throw to Irv, can we get him a 60s number?
Anyway, back to the drive. To cap off another lengthy march, Rudolph and Smith collapsed the right edge while Cleveland pulled and kicked out and Ham led through the hole for Cook’s second touchdown of the afternoon.
The drive chewed enough clock that Rodgers didn’t have time for one more miracle drive before the end of the half, with the unstoppable Vikings getting the ball after intermission.
THE REST OF THE GAME
Minnesota’s third drive was aided by a pair of pass interference penalties, culminating with another Cook rushing score. But my favorite play of the drive was the play prior to Cook’s TD, which was stopped for no gain.
A play where Ham put a Green Bay linebacker on his backside. Enjoy.
If Smith blocks out on the edge instead of doubling down, it’s a Cook touchdown one play earlier. But it’s easy to second-guess without knowing what the play call or in-the-moment line call dictated, and there would have been a whole lot more second-guessing if Cook didn’t burrow into the end zone behind Dozier and Cleveland on the next play.
Finally, then, a defensive stop for the Vikings and then more of The Dalvin Cook Show.
The blocking on Cook’s 50-yard screen pass touchdown has already been highlighted, but since it’s always fun to see big fellas in space putting defenders on the ground…
Two more blocks by tight ends and fullbacks deserve highlighting. On the second play of Minnesota’s first drive of the fourth quarter Smith and Rudolph teamed up to spring Cook for a 15-yard gain, with Smith coming back across the formation to kick out Green Bay’s edge (91) while Rudolph sealed down on the linebacker (51) and Cook cut between the two blocks for a first down.
Then, with the Vikings needing to run clock and keep Rodgers off the field, Cook picked up a drive-extending first down behind the Smith/Ham tandem. Smith kicked out the edge, Ham led through the hole, and Cook gained the final few inches on sheer will. Bottom line, the Vikings forced Green Bay to burn a timeout and earned a new set of downs.
Watching line play when the running game is imposing its will is a joy when it’s your team doing the imposing. And the play of Smith, Rudolph and Ham gave the Vikings’ offensive line a much-needed boost in a game that played directly to Zimmer’s blueprint. Unfortunately, the Vikings have only one more game on the schedule — Week 10 in Chicago — where weather might force a redux of Sunday’s game plan in Green Bay. Not that Zimmer won’t want to let the air out of the ball indoors as well, but it does present a faster track for opponents to put the burn on Minnesota’s defense.
NEXT UP: DETROIT
The Vikings’ offensive line graded out good-not-great in both wins over the Detroit Lions last season. They’ll need to be creative in slowing edge rushers Romeo Okwara (five sacks, five hits, 20 hurries) and Trey Flowers (two sacks, one hit, 10 hurries). Okwara recorded three pressures (two hits, one hurry) in the Week 7 meeting with Minnesota while Flowers registered three (one sack, one hit, one hurry) in the Week 14 rematch.
Flowers also grades out well against the run (75.5), as does interior lineman Da’Shawn Hand (78.3 against the run). But if the Vikings have their tight ends and fullback as engaged in the run blocking as they were in Green Bay, it bodes well for a fifth straight 100-yard rushing day — and fifth straight win — over the Lions.