Dalvin Cook carrying Vikings, but challenge is to preserve him for season

EAGAN, Minn. -- Balance was the buzzword for the Minnesota Vikings this offseason.

After rushing plays were called just 33% of the time in 2018, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL, coach Mike Zimmer was adamant that things needed to shift on offense. The Vikings needed to run more, but that didn’t necessarily mean a strict 50-50 split between the run and the pass.

One could infer Zimmer’s bottom line was this: The Vikings have Dalvin Cook. Use him. Build a game plan around him. And do it often.

That’s precisely how things have gone for the Vikings two weeks into the season. Cook’s workload in games that played out in vastly different ways has been the one constant on offense. He had 23 touches on 36 snaps and rushed 21 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 1 victory over the Falcons. That included just eight completions on 10 pass attempts for 98 yards and a touchdown from Kirk Cousins. On Sunday, with the Vikings trailing Green Bay the entire game, Cook ran for a career-high 154 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown, and had 23 touches on 47 snaps.

What’s clear through two games is that Minnesota is better at running the ball than it is passing it. Cook and Cousins are the reasons why.

Cook sits atop the NFL in rushing (265 yards), yards per game (132.5) and rushing TDs (three). Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski knew Cousins was struggling in Green Bay, and their playcalling reflected that, opting to wear the Packers' defense down with a rushing attack that leaned heavily on Cook.

The Vikings' run game averaged more yards per rush (7.24) than per pass attempt (7.18) in Week 2. In an NFL landscape predicated on high-octane passing attacks, the role reversal of those numbers is almost unheard of. In fact, the Vikings' 22 completed passes are the second-lowest total by a team through their first two games over the last 10 seasons (Buccaneers, 18 completions in 2017), according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Zimmer certainly wants to see the offense find more balance, but Minnesota isn’t likely to stray from what’s been working. The Vikings know they’re asking a lot of Cook by giving him a ton of touches and are confident in his capability. But just how sustainable is a workload like that beyond these two games?

"I don’t know," Zimmer said. "I think [Alexander] Mattison went in there and ran the ball four times for 25 yards or something. He ran the ball pretty good as well. Each game will be different, like I said before, we’ll just have to see where it goes off that. Cook is running extremely hard, physicality, breaking tackles. I think the offensive line is doing a good job with him and the tight ends have been doing a pretty decent job blocking the edges."

Zimmer didn’t have much to say about Cousins’ performance against Green Bay -- 14 of 32 passing for 230 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- only that he "can do better" and needs to "play within himself." That includes throwing the ball out of bounds when the receiver isn’t open instead of launching a game-changing interception like he did late in the 21-16 loss to Green Bay.

While the Vikings figure out how to help Cousins in those moments, they’ll look to the run game to carry the offense. Coaches insist they’re not worried about Cook, who was plagued by injuries his first two seasons, but they will be smart about his workload and rotating other backs in.

Minnesota needs to make sure Cook can be the same guy he is right now in game No. 16. Wearing him out won’t help this offense.

Cook knows that and took his own injury history into account this offseason in an attempt to grow physically and mentally from the ACL tear he sustained as a rookie and the hamstring injury that put a damper on his second season in 2018.

"You’re just focused on strengthening the little things [muscles] around [the knee]," Cook told ESPN this summer. "I have a great strength and conditioning coach in Uye [Mark Uyeyama]. He helps me with little things -- strengthening my quad, my hamstring, my glutes. The little things that will make my knee stronger and better than it was. It’s just focusing on the little things around the knee and the hamstring to get those things firing and that’s something I didn’t know."

Cook credits veterans such as Stefon Diggs and Xavier Rhodes for inspiring his own self-care routine. Keeping himself fresh with his violent running style -- he leads the NFL with 185 yards after contact -- is the only way he can make performances like the ones against Atlanta and Green Bay routine.

"It’s a lot of stuff we do that goes unnoticed," Cook said. "After practice, it’s a cold tub thing, I kind of try to touch up on weights a little bit. After a normal game, it’s Pilates, it’s getting with the strength and conditioning coach to do boxing to get your rhythm going, massages, dry needling. Just watching those guys' routines for the past two years has kind of carried over to what I do."