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.
That’s three boxes checked for Dalvin.
In two seasons, Cook has averaged 4.7 yards a game on the ground. In 2017, he was a running back on everyone’s radar until he tore his ACL in week four against the Detroit Lions.
In 2018, Cook showed the physical residue of his recovery and played in only 11 games, at times far from 100%. Was this just bad luck or is Dalvin prone to injury? His history at Florida State speaks to the former. Despite having shoulder surgery and a hamstring injury, he played like a legend for three seasons in Tallahassee.
I’d prefer to recognize that Cook, dealing with some infirmity, was plagued by an awful offensive scheme, an inexperienced offensive coach (John DeFilippo), and the passing of a crucial team leader (Tony Sparano).
Old Is New Again?
I would like to turn the clock back to Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season. The Vikings were facing the New Orleans Saints in shiny new US Bank Stadium. At the quarterback position was Sam Bradford, which was to be his last full game playing in Minnesota. The Vikings had finished the 2016 season with an 8-8 record, going 3-8 in their last eight games after starting 5-0.
What to expect? Though the Vikings were favored by a field goal, many considered it a toss-up game on paper.
With Pat Shurmur and Tony Sparano running the offense, Dalvin Cook exploded onto the NFL scene, carrying the football 22 times for 127 yards and setting up a wideouts Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs for a combined 16 catches, 250 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
The Viking offense racked up 470 total yards and won handily, 29-19.
I believe that Mike Zimmer has now imported the type of coaching that will restore that type of balance, dynamic, and firepower to the Vikings’ offense. If there are critics of Kirk Cousins, they can’t go so far to call him inferior to Sam Bradford as a signal caller.
And superiority is not the point at quarterback here. It may be the ideal of the running back position and in some consideration, the offensive line, but let’s face it, Minnesota could get the players they want with picks 18, 50 and 114 in the upcoming draft and still not sport an offensive line that people spoke highly of.
It’ll take a nice winning streak to start that conversation.
But I think Dalvin Cook, new playbook in hand, will be given his chance to shine again. He’s all of 23 years old. “Kubiak and Cook” has a nice ring to it. I think they both give fans of the Minnesota Vikings a lot to cheer about in 2019.