Vikings' run game goes into attack mode against Cardinals

MINNEAPOLIS -- A host of early-season issues -- Dalvin Cook's absence, a maligned offensive line and the elite interior defensive linemen they bashed heads with in the first five weeks -- set back a running game that was supposed to be the focal point of the Minnesota Vikings offense.

The imbalance was talked about ad nauseum: Would the Vikings' run game ever come alive? Is Kirk Cousins throwing the ball 50-plus times a game sustainable if they have to abandon the run altogether?

Truth be told, the Vikings didn't need the run game to carry the load and score points -- not when Cousins and his elite receiving duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are producing. But there was no way offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was going to lie stagnant when it came to getting things going on the ground.

"We are in attack mode all the time," DeFilippo said last week. "We are staying aggressive and staying in attack. But at the same time, being smart about it."

DeFilippo held true to that approach Sunday during the Vikings' 27-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, turning around a once-explosive unit that had toppled to the bottom of the NFL. The Vikings' run game finally broke through with a season-best 195 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.

Half the battle during the first five weeks was the circumstances of each game had in dictating how much Minnesota could run, based on how far the Vikings found themselves behind the chains in down and distance, and that they were constantly playing from behind on the scoreboard. Part of their success against Arizona was the choice to stick with the run until it broke through.

"Sometimes you get a 2-yard gain and you get frustrated," coach Mike Zimmer said. "Might be 2 [yards] and 2 [yards] and then it might be 22. So you just have to keep pounding away and pounding away."

Latavius Murray notched a monster day filling in for Cook, who was a late add to the inactives list after Vikings medical staff determined his injured left hamstring wasn't quite ready for game action after going through warm-ups. Murray recorded Minnesota's longest rush of the season, a 34-yard carry in the third quarter, and became the team's first 100-yard rusher since Week 17 of the 2017 season by notching 155 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.

That's a single-game best for Murray, who downplayed his individual success postgame, feeling that he might have left even more production on the field. But there's no denying how good it felt for the sixth-year running back to finally see a breakthrough after weeks of frustration.

"I don't want to sit here and say that we cracked the code," Murray said. "I will say, I feel we are capable of running the ball that way every week. We have to figure out a way to do that no matter who we are playing."

Minnesota didn't just squeak by the Cardinals' 31st-ranked run defense, either, as big run plays helped the Vikings jump out to an early lead. Murray ended the Vikings' drought as the last team without a rushing touchdown with a 21-yard run in the first quarter.

By the end of the game, the Vikings found themselves in a similar situation to their win against Philadelphia, relying on the run game to eat up clock so they could seal the victory. But unlike last week, when the Vikings were able to survive a late push by the Eagles, a win was hardly in doubt as Minnesota ran out the final 3 minutes, 14 seconds by running the ball.

"It's something that we talk about all the time," right tackle Brian O'Neill said. "When it comes down to those situations, they know we are running it and we know that they are running it. It's us versus you."

The tweaks DeFilippo made to the run game started with the offensive line, whose run blocking was the best it has been after battling through a host of personnel changes and injuries this season. With left tackle Riley Reiff sidelined with a foot injury, Rashod Hill slid over to the left side while O'Neill, a rookie, started at right tackle.

There were moments when the run blocking resembled the line that dominated last season, creating big gaps for rushers on their way to 6.1 yards per carry. On Mike Boone's 20-yard run in the second half, maximum protection from O'Neill and tight end David Morgan gave the rookie rusher plenty of room for the big gain. The play set up a 13-yard touchdown for Thielen three plays later to give the Vikings a two-score lead.

The 74 yards Murray gained after contact was a product of those protections panning out in full, pushing action to the second level so the veteran rusher could break free.

"When you have all nine other guys, let's just say, doing their job and getting a hat on a hat, then I'm able to get to the second level and the rest is up to me," Murray said. "And as a running back, that's all you can ask for. Obviously you would love to be untouched all the way to the end zone, but you have to make guys miss in the second level if you want big runs and to score touchdowns."

Cousins remained just as aggressive through the air as he's been in games where he's had to shoulder much of the load, completing 24 of 34 passes for 233 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Thielen once again recorded a 100-yard receiving day (11 catches, 123 yards, TD), his sixth straight in 2018. His record streak continues, with Thielen making his mark this time as the first receiver to have 57 catches in his first six games, according to Elias research.

At the end of the third quarter, Cousins ran in a 7-yard touchdown, his 11th rushing touchdown since 2015, which is the second-most by a quarterback during that time, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Only Cam Newton has more.

The Vikings quarterback contributed to a run game that provided him with some relief in a way it hadn't all season. Seeing that unit finally come to life was refreshing; even more satisfying was being able to run the clock out and walk off with a second consecutive victory.

"I've always said that the run game is going to be an easier way to move the football when it comes to less risk," Cousins said. "Any time we can get the run game going and have explosive runs that's always preferred, especially in the second half there when we got a three-score lead and we were trying to churn clock. So any time we get that going we're going to try, but it's tough to stay patient at times. You have a second-and-short, you run the ball and you lose a couple yards, now it's third-and-4, and you're back to your dropback game and you're thinking, 'Why did we run on second down?' It's that balance of trying to be patient and run the ball, but also not wasting plays."