Vikings find their formula for success in first win of season

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings walked away from their 31-23 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday with an offensive blueprint for how to win.

For the first time in two decades, Minnesota had two 100-yard receivers (Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson) and a 100-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook) in a game. The last time that happened was when Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Robert Smith played together on Nov. 19, 2000.

In their first win of the season, the Vikings (1-3) leaned on their run game and asked quarterback Kirk Cousins to make big throws on the 22 passes he attempted, and he did just that. Minnesota ran by design on 39 of its 65 offensive plays (60%), its highest rate since Week 1 of the 2019 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Remember that game? The Vikings beat the Falcons handily as Cousins threw only 10 times. There was a heavy notion of "that won't be the way things are every week," but when it works, it's worth sticking with.

Minnesota's 0-3 start had runs by design on just 43% of plays, which ranked 11th in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak saw an opportunity to use Cook to wear down the Texans' porous run defense to open opportunities for Cousins.

Cook ran 27 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns and had a career-high four rushes in which he gained at least 5 yards after contact. He had 5 YAC on his highlight-worthy 6-yard rushing touchdown when he rolled a defender off his back and threw a stiff arm on his way into the end zone.

Minnesota did things in Week 4 that it hadn't done in the three losses. The Vikings controlled time of possession. They utilized heavy pre-snap motion. Cousins thrived off play-action, going 9 of 11 for 180 yards and a touchdown on such passes. He had more completions off play-action in Week 4 than he did in the first three games combined (8-of-16).

Most importantly, the offense responded any time Houston threatened to make it a close game in ways that it hadn't in Weeks 1-3. After Dan Bailey missed a 55-yard field goal and the Texans cut the Vikings' lead to 17-16 in the third quarter, Minnesota scored two touchdowns in 14 plays covering 148 yards to go up 31-16 with 10:54 left.

On consecutive drives, the Vikings put the ball in Cousins' hands and tasked him with making the types of throws he hadn't consistently made in the first three weeks. The types of throws that show he trusts his playmakers in coverage.

"I told [Kubiak] during the game, I said: ‘Go ahead and be aggressive here; don't worry about throwing the football,'" coach Mike Zimmer said. "They were trying to load up on us to stop the run and I said, ‘Don't be afraid to throw the ball.' I thought Kirk made some great throws, and he got some help from Jefferson, and Thielen was wide open on a couple of them. Jefferson made a couple of tough catches."

Jefferson had catches of 23 and 25 yards on consecutive drives, the first of which set up Thielen's 9-yard touchdown. The 25-yard reception, on a back-shoulder throw from Cousins late in the game, put the Vikings in the red zone to score two plays later.

Each of Jefferson's four catches went for more than 20 yards. It's evident that it didn't take long for him to gain the trust of his quarterback, either.

"When we came off to the sideline after the drive, [backup quarterback] Sean Mannion said, ‘You been working on back shoulders to Justin?' In other words, we don't have that time or years banked," Cousins said. "At some point, you just got to play and believe he can do it. And after he adjusted, found the ball, made the catch, kept his feet in bounds and made the play, I looked at whoever I was with -- Dalvin or Adam -- as we were moving up the field and said, ‘18 can play.' That's not easy to do.'

"Yeah, are we going to build trust over time? Yes, we're going to build trust. But some of the things we're doing, there is no trust. It's just raw ability, and you're putting the ball out there hoping, believing that he's going to be able to make it happen."

Minnesota didn't score in the final 10:50 and had to stave off a late-game scare with a goal-line stop from its defense. The next step for the offense will be closing out games on its own, which is no small part of the formula the Vikings need to execute to get win No. 2, beginning Sunday night against the Seahawks in Seattle.

"It's going to take all 11," Jefferson said. "Everybody playing their part and everybody making those plays that keep the drive going. We just can't give it to the defense and have them go out there and stop them. We wanted to rely on us. And we want to be the last ones with the ball in our hands."