Before the fourth quarter began, Cook already set three new team and league-wide records.
Cook shouldered the load on offense for a third straight week, rushing 16 times for 110 yards and a touchdown while adding four catches for 33 yards. His lengthy list of accomplishments earned on Sunday include the following:
the first player to run for 100 yards and a rushing touchdown in each of the first three games since DeMarco Murray in 2014;
the first player in Vikings history to rush for 100 yards in each of the team’s first three games of the season;
and the first Vikings player with 100 rushing yards in three consecutive games since Adrian Peterson in 2015.
“I feel great,” Cook said. “I go back to work tomorrow and get my body ready to player another football game. It has been part of my routine, it has been drilled into me since preseason. I have been getting ready to get into playing shape and I am ready to play.”
What the Vikings can glean about their offense in the early part of the season is that Cook is capable of handling a workload that not only allows him to be the centerpiece of this scheme, but carry out a rushing attack that mirrors few others in the NFL.
Minnesota rushed for 211 yards as a team, a feat which it last topped against Miami late in the 2018 season when the Vikings compiled 220 yards and three touchdowns on 40 rushes. Through three games, Minnesota remains an anomaly in today’s pass-heavy NFL with more rushing yards (581) than passing yards (467).
“There’s a commitment to running the ball from our coaches philosophically and the way they game plan and the way they call plays, so that’s first of all given us a chance,” quarterback Kirk Cousins aid. “We have a very special running back in Dalvin Cook. He’s shown that. So those are two big pieces. And then our offensive line is executing the plays.
“I know Coach Zimmer, I think that’s an important piece for him, too, is to see an offense that’s running the football well. Really three weeks in a row we’ve done that. We’re going against a really good football team next weekend who’s well known for stopping the run, so that will be a big challenge.”
What’s striking to coach Mike Zimmer is the way Cook earned his yards against the Raiders. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Cook rushed 12 times for 84 yards between the tackles Sunday, averaging 7.0 yards per rush. This season, Cook is averaging 6.4 yards on 46 rushes between the tackles after averaging 4.5 yards his first two seasons.
“He doesn’t need a lot of space, because he’s really good at slithering through holes,” Zimmer said. “Maybe the most impressive thing with him is toughness in the tackles. He doesn’t ever want to go down, but he’s a physical runner with great speed and home run ability.”
The Vikings’ return on investment in Cook is finally coming together after multiple injuries in the running back’s left leg limited him to 15 games in his first two seasons. And his impact isn’t just felt in the run game.
Minnesota has averaged 193.7 rush yards per game this season, but Week 3 was the first time Cousins was able to take full advantage in the passing game, which was predicated off what Cook did on the ground. Cousins was then able to establish an effective play-action attack, going 7-of-9 for 107 yards and a TD on such passes.
“There were a couple times I checked the play to run the ball because they were getting back and preventing other plays down the field,” Cousins said. “But it’s a beautiful thing when you can run the football effectively, get some single high looks, get some loaded boxes and then hit an explosive to a guy like Irv Smith. That’s a great thing when you don’t even have to get into third down, you can just, first, second, first, second, first, second. That’s not usually reality, but if you can do it, it’s a great thing.”
Cook’s role in this revamped scheme has allowed the Vikings’ offense to operate in a way few other teams have in 2019. Some of that has to do with the opponents they’ve faced. On a more philosophical level, it’s because this run-first mentality is how Zimmer wants to see his offense operate a weekly basis.
“It’s part of our head coach’s identity,” Cook said. “That comes with the old-school rules. We know the type of defense we’ve got, if we can keep this thing close and keep this thing manageable for us to go win the football game, that’s part of running the football and taking big shots and making plays and just converting. That’s what Zim likes to do. I like it, if that’s what Zimmer likes to do.”