Vikings' offense can shift up a gear with Dalvin Cook after bye week

MINNEAPOLIS – Dalvin Cook admitted he was nervous when testing out his hamstring ahead of the game against the Detroit Lions after not seeing the field since Week 4. After all, the Minnesota Vikings running back had gone through a similar on-field workout three weeks before only to discover his body wasn’t responding the way he had hoped hours before kickoff against the Cardinals.

Not long after, Cook showed no signs of trepidation while breaking off the longest rush of his career, sprinting 70 yards down the visiting team’s sideline on an inside zone run where he reached speeds of 22.07 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Stopped five yards shy of the end zone, it looked like Cook was finally able to put the nagging injury that has hampered his comeback story to bed.

“He actually said that he was thinking about his hamstring and only kept it in fourth gear,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Hopefully there’s another gear in there somewhere."

Cook’s return gives Minnesota hope that its offense will be able to routinely incorporate an explosive element it has been without. With more time to get back to full health over the bye week, the Vikings will finally be able to utilize their running back tandem beginning in Week 11 in ways they haven’t been able to this season.

Minnesota showed glimpses of that against the Lions with both Cook and Latavius Murray on the field. On the fourth play of the Vikings’ first drive, Cook motioned out to the slot while Murray was lined up in the backfield. Cook caught a 4-yard pass from Kirk Cousins that nearly broke the game open.

“There was one other run that I thought he was going to pop that he just got tripped on,” Zimmer said. “He has got a chance to hit home runs. I think it was really good for him to get out there and get some game-time action. When you haven’t played in six weeks and you haven’t practiced all that much I think he will continue to get better. See some of the cuts a little bit better as he gets going.”

The screen game is an area the Vikings' offense could benefit most from Cook’s return given they haven’t been as active in utilizing running back screens in his absence. Minnesota has gained 141 passing yards on screen plays this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 141 yards, 22 have been when a running back was targeted. According to ESPN’s data, those 22 yards, which rank 31st in the NFL, belong to Cook alone. While Murray has 18 catches for 132 yards in nine games, none has come off screen plays. Minnesota hasn’t been able to generate much in the screen game from the rest of its running back group, either.

Before he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee last year, Cook was beginning to make important contributions in the passing game. In limited action this season, Cook showed that’s still an area where he can be a difference-maker, catching a 24-yard slant in Green Bay and totaling four catches for 20 yards against the Lions.

“He’s dynamic with the football in his hands,” Cousins said. “We’re going to try to find ways to get him the football. It could be a toss, it could be a handoff, it could be a draw, it could be a screen. And then even third downs. When he’s out there on third down, I think you could go back and watch the all-22, watch the tape and see that he’s probably a potential target there to move the chains and get us a first down on third down as well. That’s something also we can go back and look at.”

Last Sunday, Cook exceeded his expected pitch count by logging 28 plays and finished as the team’s leading rusher with 10 carries for 89 yards.

A healthy Cook will allow offensive coordinator John DeFilippo flexibility with elements of his playbook he hasn’t been able to dial up just yet. How Minnesota will choose to execute the roles between Cook and Murray will begin to unfold in Chicago on Nov. 18, but given the depths of their different skill sets, there’s reason to believe both backs can make important contributions on a regular basis.

Take for instance what Zimmer said on Monday about the areas of the run game the Vikings hope to ramp up over the next seven games, particularly when they play outdoors in November and December in Chicago, New England and Seattle.

“We have to look for ways when we get down inside the 15-yard line in order to run the ball,” Zimmer said. “It’s just harder to throw the ball in there. So in order for us to get better in the red zone touchdowns, we have to run the ball better in there.”

Murray has 20 rushing touchdowns in goal-to-go situations since the start of 2016, the second most in the NFL behind Todd Gurley. That may be an area the Vikings' offense would benefit most from having Murray in the game. And with a healthy Cook back in action, Minnesota will finally be able to lean on its rushing tandem.