When the Minnesota Vikings signed Gary Kubiak, and in turn, Rick Dennison to revamp their offense, a young man named Dalvin Cook must have smiled.
With all due respect to the Minnesota Vikings new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, let’s put him aside for a moment and discuss Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison and the new offense they are installing.
The 2019 Minnesota Vikings will run to set up the pass. This is a successful formula that is as old as the league itself.
The crucial variables to this successful formula will be Dalvin Cook’s health and his supporting staff, meaning the Viking offensive line and Minnesota’s second and third team running backs.
To illustrate just how unbalanced –and unsuccessful–the Vikings were last year as an offense, compare their numbers to the 2017 season.
In 2018, the Vikings ranked 27th in rushing attempts and 30th in yards on the ground. By way of the passing game, they ranked 6th in attempts and 13th in yards. That’s 1493 rushing (4.2 average), and 4036 passing.
They ended the season 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs.
In 2017, the Vikings ranked 2nd in rushing attempts and 7th in yards. By the pass, they were 21st in attempts and 11th in yards. That’s 1957 on the ground (3.9 average) and 3753 in the air.
The Minnesota Vikings were 13-3 and one game away from the Super Bowl.
How does this happen? The 2018 team had a better rushing average than 2017, the quarterback clearly threw for more yards, and the Minnesota defense, while taking a dip, remained one of the league’s best.
The answer begins on third down. While that credible Viking defense remained at number one in opponent third-down conversion from 2017 to 2018, the Minnesota offense went from 3rd in the NFL in 2017 to 26th in 2018.
That means the Viking offense found itself–time and time again–in third and long situations when it needed to create and sustain offensive drives.
Zone Blocking: Not Rocket Science
To understand the “run game coordinator” title that the Minnesota Vikings have given offensive line coach Rick Dennison, you must examine Dennison’s (and Gary Kubiak’s) history with a zone running scheme that dates back to before Hall-of-Fame running back Terrell Davis came to the Denver Broncos and won consecutive Super Bowls with an ancient John Elway as his quarterback.
We won’t review each season of this system. Needless to say, it has brought so much success for Kubiak and Dennison that it has enabled them to bring their blueprint to other coaching opportunities.
Suffice to say, the Broncos’ championships, in ‘97, ‘98, and then on another go-around in 2015, should speak volumes.
In a zone blocking scheme, the offensive line usually moves as a unit laterally, with each lineman blocking an area (a zone) instead of just a designated defender. This creates seams or gaps in the defensive line and formation.
The running back is then responsible in “seeing” a gap, making his cut and getting north into the second level of the defense.
Easy enough, but what it relies on is again what could be problematic for the 2019 Vikings: Dalvin Cook’s health and the quality of his teammates.
Kubiak and Dennison must see Cook as a unique athlete. He has sound physical and mental traits to fuel a zone running attack and the rare ability to break a game open with nearly every open seam he spies. Cook also has great value in the power game, as he runs extremely well in tight places, a talent not all backs possess.
It’s possible that Kubiak and Dennison saw Latavius Murray as a bit of a square peg in their offensive round holes, as Murray has a tendency to run high as a back. Kubiak doesn’t mind big backs (see Arian Foster), but what he covets most is quick feet, quick decisions, and a standard turbo button.
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has fought through a ton of adversity in his first two seasons. As of now, Cook is set for a big 2019 season. His rookie season was cut short due to a torn ACL, which opened the door for his backups to shine. Jerick McKinnon stepped in and showed a ton of promise, as did Latavius Murray. Following the 2017 season, McKinnon walked away from Minnesota and headed out west to join the San Francisco 49ers.
Cook returned from injury in 2018 as the lead back in Minnesota. With McKinnon gone, there were expectations for Cook to thrive as the primary ball-carrier. However, he missed five games with a hamstring injury and finished the year with just 133 carries. Murray filled in nicely for the Vikings, but he has since left town and joined the Saints down in the bayou.
Now, Cook is the only true threat in the backfield as the Vikings prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Vikings will most likely add another running back prior to the season, whether it be via the draft or free agency. However, a lot will fall on the shoulders of Cook. He will be the veteran leader in the locker room. Not to mention Roc Thomas, one of the young options on the roster, was recently charged with felony marijuana possession. Ameer Abdullah recently re-signed with the team, but he only garnered one carry in 2018. In seven games with Minnesota, Abdullah had zero rushing attempts and one reception. That said, Abdullah does not seem like a realistic option in 2019.
One positive takeaway from Dalvin Cook’s injury history is that he hasn’t had a heavy workload. With just 207 career carries, there is a lot of tread still left on the tires. Of course, that does not come without concern. Cook needs to stay healthy and show that he can be the top back in an NFL offense.
Nothing is set in stone right now, but Dalvin Cook appears to be in prime position to finally take a big step in 2019. The Vikings have to hope he will return to his rookie self and handle a bigger load while avoiding injury and sustaining solid numbers. Minnesota is also expected to improve their offensive line in the NFL Draft, further helping the run game.