There’s no need to harp on Adrian Peterson‘s lack of versatility. Minnesota Vikings fans know, after years of watching him barrel through opposing defenses, that Peterson’s most valuable attribute was just that — his ability as a pure, north-to-south runner.
As Father Time gains ground and offensive philosophies shift to more wide-open, dynamic attacks, patience wears thin for players of Peterson’s unique, if limited skill set. While still a major draw on Sunday afternoons, the proof is on the paper; the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher sits behind Mark Ingram — and potentially rookie Alvin Kamara — on the New Orleans Saints’ depth chart.
Back in Minnesota, it’s clear Peterson’s replacement, second-round pick Dalvin Cook, brings a welcome, refreshing dynamic to the Vikings’ backfield. Though not the workhorse of his predecessor, it was clear from the start of training camp that Cook’s ceiling — in all other facets of a running back’s repertoire — is much higher than Peterson’s was from 2012 on.
Last Thursday’s preseason opener gave the organization a glimpse of the offensive flexibility Cook brings to Pat Shurmur’s scheme. Against the Buffalo Bills, he enjoyed a lion’s share of touches — almost all manufactured to put the ball in his hands — and reminded the Vikings of the possibilities created by having a do-it-all player in the backfield.
Cook played a total of 18 snaps against the Bills, partly because of his own talents and partly because of injuries to other players at the position. Still, he delivered in his first professional action, carrying the ball five times for 13 yards and adding 30 yards through four catches. As Pro Football Focus notes, he saw most of his work in third down situations, suggesting he’ll be the team’s go-to back between the 20s during the regular season.
When he did catch the ball, Cook wasn’t just a decoy; his 2.91 yards per route run was higher than any of the league’s top-20 receivers in 2016. The Vikings actively tried to put the ball in Cook’s hands, and when given the opportunity, he flashed his long-term, playmaking potential.
On Cook’s very first NFL snap, the Vikings put their rookie running back in the spotlight. Not only was he lined up in the shotgun — uncomfortable territory for the departed Peterson — but he was almost certainly expected to take the handoff. At the snap, Buffalo’s linebackers screamed toward the line of scrimmage, fully anticipating a run for the spotlight player.
Taking a step back, the Vikings ran a simple inside zone concept, which puts the onus on the running back to read the blocking ahead and cut upfield. The entire offensive line’s job is to move in unison, either to the left or right, creating running lanes for the ballcarrier by absorbing bodies in their assigned “zone.” Plays like this require a patient back, one with sound footwork and balance to “get skinny” through creases at the line of scrimmage.
In Cook, the Vikings have just that. He correctly identified the running lane as diagrammed, angling himself toward Joe Berger‘s outside leg from the mesh point to the initial line of scrimmage. When the linebackers worked their way into the box and closed the play-side gap, he planted his right foot and cut back to his left, against the flow of the defense. Cook’s patience maximized generally efficient blocking, turning what would have been a one or two-yard play last year into a six-yard gain.
Cook also finished the run with strength, driving his legs and keeping his balance to fall forward. He squirted through arm tackles and fought for every yard, putting the Vikings in a manageable second-down situation behind markedly improved run blocking. It wasn’t necessarily the most impressive carry, but Cook’s nuances — patience, vision, balance, body control — are welcome traits that will translate well to a full game’s workload.
Once again, the Vikings tasked Cook with carrying the offense early in the game. Never mind the cries for Sam Bradford to throw it deep, this was Minnesota’s first opportunity to test their newfound star, and they weren’t going to pass it up.
Shurmur called a nearly identical run concept, but this time out of a pistol formation. Cook often operated out of the shotgun in college, and the pistol presents similar advantages for a running back: an extra half-second to read the blocks and a natural hiding place behind the quarterback.
At the snap, Cook took the handoff and by design, cut to his right behind Berger’s outside shoulder. The free rusher to the left negated his pre-snap, geographical advantage, but Cook’s initial burst allowed him a split-second jump to the line of scrimmage. He hit the hole quickly, bouncing off the scrum, hugging his blockers, and shaking free from the blitzer’s arm tackle before redirecting to the sideline.
If Cook had turned his shoulders to the right, he would’ve likely been tackled for a short gain. But because he kept his shoulders square and momentum moving forward, he was able to navigate the mess ahead with ease. The run above wass a culmination of Cook’s clean footwork, aggressive, between-the-tackles running, and patience behind his blockers; attributes that jumped out on every one of his carries in the game.
Before he snapped the football, Bradford knew exactly where he’d be throwing his third-down pass — to No. 33, Dalvin Cook. Shurmur schemed rub routes to the short side of the field to confuse the intermediate coverage, which in turn created a gap in the zones for a Bradford-to-Cook connection.
At the snap, Kyle Rudolph ran vertically up the field, carrying two defenders out of the hook-to-curl zone. The cornerback and linebacker likely expected a quick throw to Rudolph, who has shown an ability to hurt defenses up the seam. But Bradford never took his eyes off Cook, who squirted out of the backfield and into the flat.
In the middle of the field, Stefon Diggs and Jarius Wright crossed paths, literally. Their routes — drags underneath the deep coverage — muddled the flow of the pursuing linebackers and slowed their drops to the proper areas of the field. The slight hesitation allowed Cook to go uncovered in the flat, creating a simple pitch-and-catch for Bradford and Cook down the sideline.
Cook displayed a natural ability to catch away from his body, plant his left foot, and open his hips upfield. He looked smooth in and out of the break, transitioning from catch to run with ease. When he did fully turn around, Cook also showed a sudden burst to reach the sideline and pick up an extra yard or two before being pushed out of bounds.
None of Cook’s first three snaps were highlight-worthy, or for that matter, memorable. But they were encouraging signs as the Vikings look to carve an offensive identity. Cook isn’t just a running back; he’s a weapon, one who can hurt teams on the ground or as a pass-catcher.
Shurmur, criticized last season for his conservative play calls, showed a willingness to utilize one of his best player’s most obvious talents. He called running plays very similar to those Cook thrived in at Florida State and dialed up passing plays to get his most dynamic offensive player the ball early in the down.
There’s more to see from Bradford and the offense as a whole, sure, but Cook provides a glimmer of hope for a team in need of another every-down playmaker. This is only the beginning, and the thought of Cook taking 20 to 30 snaps a game should excite all Vikings fans.
I’ll be charting all of the team’s first offensive series throughout the year, including the preseason. They’ll be located HERE. If you’d like to see the Vikings’ first series against the Bills, follow this link!