EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Dalvin Cook took the first-down handoff for Minnesota, sized up the blocking at the line and veered hard to his left.
Miami cornerback Bobby McCain had the angle on him, but Cook won the race to the edge and accelerated up the sideline to reach the end zone untouched for the Vikings on their merry way to a 41-17 victory over the Dolphins .
That 13-yard touchdown run during a 21-point first quarter was a fitting snapshot of a performance by the offense that was as smooth as it’s been all season. That play was called to the same side of the field six days earlier in a 21-7 loss at Seattle, when the Vikings were as flat as they’ve been all year in trying to move the ball.
Against the Seahawks, naturally, the unblocked cornerback tackled Cook for a short gain. Quarterback Kirk Cousins promised Cook on the sideline that night the next time he had the opportunity he’d beat the defender to the perimeter and turn it into a big play.
Sure enough, that’s what transpired against the Dolphins, when Cousins looked at Cook in the huddle and said simply, “Make him miss.”
The margin between winning and losing in the NFL can be so slim that sometimes for no significant reason a play can be thwarted one week and thrive the next. Cousins has been vocal since the change about his insistence that the struggles were not a product of bad play calls but rather the fault of the players.
“We’ve got to make the coaches right,” Cousins said.
Still, there was a clear boost the Vikings gained from a fresh start under interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski after the firing of John DeFilippo . The shift in venue to another capacity crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium was the biggest help, and facing a Dolphins defense with many deficiencies instead of the Seahawks was a welcomed alternative.
With Stefanski calling the plays on Sunday for the first time, there was a concerted effort to follow a streamlined, simplified game plan after the Vikings were held under 285 total yards in Seattle for the fourth time in a five-game stretch. They called 40 runs to 23 passes, by far their biggest favor of the ground game of the season.
Coach Mike Zimmer, who’d been critical of DeFilippo last month for what he termed “too much volume” in the playbook from week to week, saw some negative effect that had on Cousins. He told his quarterback last week to remember what playing in the backyard in seventh grade felt like.
“You don’t run plays. You just play the game,” Zimmer said. “I think that’s what he needs to do, just play the game and let it unfold.”
Stefanski simply used more players, too. Fullback C.J. Ham had 18 snaps, and backup tight ends David Morgan and Tyler Conklin had 23 snaps apiece. Ham and Morgan, who returned from a four-game absence because of a knee injury, had the key blocks to give Cook his chance to beat the cornerback one-on-one on his first touchdown.
The offensive linemen, too, were at their best in a season that has been a struggle at times for the Vikings up front. Zimmer made the players report for meetings on Monday instead of the typical day off after a late-in-the-year victory, citing a desire to give the offensive linemen an opportunity to enjoy reviewing their performance.
“What we are able of accomplishing when we do the right things,” Zimmer said.
The bigger-picture reason, of course, to stay at work is the NFC wild-card race. Philadelphia and Washington both won to stay on the heels of the Vikings (7-6-1), who could clinch their spot as soon as next weekend, but could also find themselves eliminated if they don’t win their final two games. Keeping that rushing attack going will go a long way toward avoiding that fate.
“These guys believe in me 100 percent, and I believe in them 100 percent,” Cook said of his blockers. “So when you’ve got a group like that, it’s a number of positive outcomes. We know what we can do.”