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Dalvin Cook adds dangerous element to Vikings' passing game

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Saturday: Cousins played 'lights out' for Vikings (1:04)

Jeff Saturday praises Kirk Cousins' attitude and authenticity in his first game with the Vikings, a 24-16 win over the 49ers. (1:04)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kirk Cousins spread the ball around to eight different receivers in the Minnesota Vikings' 24-16 season-opening win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Among them was running back Dalvin Cook, whose regular-season return from an ACL tear resulted in more receiving yards than he gained as a rusher.

Cook finished as the Vikings' second-leading receiver, a tidbit Latavius Murray offered up to Stefon Diggs when he popped by the receiver's media scrum in the locker room.

"I think he caught the ball particularly well," Diggs said of Cook. "It's always surprising to see running backs catch so well," the receiver said, adding extra emphasis to his favorite verb with a smile.

Cook took his six passes 55 yards against the 49ers. His longest play from scrimmage on Sunday was a screen pass that he caught at eye-level before making a cut to avoid a tackle, and then another, racking up 17 yards in the process.

Throughout the offseason, the message from Vikings coaches and players centered on the overarching principle that this offense is going to go as far as its run game will take it. That doesn't solely pertain to what Cook, Murray and the rest of Minnesota's running backs do in the ground game.

What the second-year running back demonstrated in the passing game shows how dangerous he'll become for Kirk Cousins.

"I don't know how you can be a back in this league anymore and not be involved in the pass game," Cousins said. "With play-action passes, so many times the defense is getting underneath the deep throws and you have to check it down to the running back. So many times they're taking away other plays, and you have to get to your back. If you're not a natural catcher of the football, you got to become one and work at it, because you get involved in the pass game.

"I told him many times, I said, 'I'm going to continue to throw you the ball, whether you like it or not, because first of all, it's a good thing when the ball is in your hands, and second of all, you're the guy who is open.'"

Before his injury last October, Cook caught 11 passes for 90 yards. That small sample size provided offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with more than enough to know what his pass-catching abilities could add to the offense. Throughout OTAs and the preseason, Cook routinely lined up in the slot and was tasked with catching his share of passes, an element of the offense that made him eager for the season.

"In college I just lined up 7 yards deep and let's get the football," Cook said in August. "Coach DeFilippo brought a different mindset to this thing. He wanted to get his playmakers the ball as much as possible."

Minnesota's effective screen game was a staple in 2017, aided by an athletic offensive line that was able to routinely get out to the second level. The layer it adds to Cousins' arsenal, allowing him a quick out when the pass rush is heavy and the ability to pick up chunk yardage, is a valuable asset that's already taking shape.

"It's dangerous now," Cook said Sunday. "Teams always tend to give it a great look when we call it."

And the Vikings will keep calling it often, relying on their ability to control games with a short passing attack. Once Cook finds a crease and is able to take a short pass the distance, it becomes one of their most lethal plays on the call sheet.