MINNEAPOLIS -- Dalvin Cook has covered a lot of ground this season, entering and exiting Week 8 leading the NFL in rushing yards (823) and yards from scrimmage (1,116).
When he finds a cutback lane or can bounce his way to the outside, the Minnesota Vikings running back is nearly unstoppable. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, Cook’s 700 yards gained on outside runs is leaps and bounds ahead of any other back in the league (Cleveland's Nick Chubb is the next closest with 460).
At the midway point of a 6-2 Vikings season, Cook is quietly putting together a breakout season worthy of consideration in the MVP conversation. What he has accomplished in both the running and passing games are on par with the efforts of Carolina all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey, who has been considered among the front-runners for the award in the early portion of the season.
Cook’s elusiveness and ability to break off a big play once he gets in space aren’t limited to what he’s doing on the ground. As Minnesota’s first-half opponents have learned, Cook is a legitimate threat when he gets involved in the passing game.
No play better describes the danger Cook presents to defenses than his 31-yard reception in the second quarter of the Vikings’ 19-9 win over the Washington Redskins on Thursday. Motioning Cook out of the backfield, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a screen pass to Cook, who danced around five defenders while spanning 68.6 yards of turf, the most distance covered on a reception in his career, and the third most by a running back on a reception this season.
"When he gets in space he’s pretty dangerous," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think you’ve seen that now for several weeks. The offensive line, I think they got out and got a couple guys out in front of him. Once he gets into some clear space, he’s got a chance to do a lot of damage."
Like McCaffrey with the Panthers, much of Minnesota’s offense runs through Cook. Even with a shift in playcalling since Week 5 opening up more opportunities for the Vikings to get ahead in games with a pass-heavy attack, Cook is still producing on the ground (he had 23 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown against Washington), which has helped sell play-action. And he is getting involved as a receiver -- had had five catches for 73 yards in Week 8.
A key to Cousins reaching a single-game franchise-high 88.5 completion percentage (23-of-26) against Washington? Short passes predicated off screens to Cook. Three of his five catches on Thursday came on back-to-back drives in the second half, with those screen plays becoming a staple in this offense.
"You’ve got to give them credit," Redskins coach Bill Callahan said. "I thought Minnesota made those plays and they were timely plays and they hurt us at a critical point."
The Vikings have the best screen game in the NFL, ranking first in yards (227) and yards per attempt (9.8). Of those 227 yards, 176 have been generated by running back screens, a dangerous weapon the Vikings are utilizing with Cook.
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"A couple of those screens were hit in two-minute [situations], so that's a very different situation than a second-and-long when you're selling play-action or whatever it may be," Cousins said. "But we had a couple screens where we were off play-action, a couple were off a dropback, a couple were just in the two-minute. And the key is what those guys do with the ball in their hands once they get it. And then the ability of our linemen to get out on people and our receivers and tight ends to block. So those are big plays throughout the night and really set up that touchdown at the end of the half."
Cook has yet to score a touchdown as a receiver, but he ranks sixth in receiving yards per target (7.9) with him coming out of the backfield (minimum five targets). His 73 receiving yards and 75 yards after the catch were both the second most in his career, and his 11.6 yards after the catch per reception this season is the most in the NFL.
Cook is on pace to do some remarkable things in the second half of the season. The single-season record for yards from scrimmage (2,509) hasn’t come close to being touched since Chris Johnson set the mark with the Titans in 2009.
Cook is on pace to eclipse 2,220 yards from scrimmage in his third season. Even with the production the Vikings are generating with their receivers, notably Stefon Diggs' three straight games of 140 yards receiving, Cook is an invaluable part of this scheme who boosts the offense’s efficiency whenever he touches the ball.
Finding methods to keep him as involved in the passing game in the second half is vital for the success of this offense and will edge him further to receiving the recognition for the roll he’s on.