Key to Vikings' success: Keep ball out of Kirk Cousins' hands?

EAGAN, Minn. -- When Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer used to be asked about his preference for a run-heavy offense, he would redirect and talk about wanting a balanced attack.

Days after Dalvin Cook posted 226 yards from scrimmage, including 163 yards rushing, and four touchdowns in a 28-22 win over the Green Bay Packers, Zimmer was talking a different game.

"I think we want to be a run-first offense, a run-first team," Zimmer said.

The 2-5 Vikings have the highest designed-run percentage (48%) in the NFL. Despite missing 1½ games this season with a groin injury, Cook ranks second in rushing (652) and rushing yards per game (108.7). He has scored a touchdown in six straight games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL, and has the second-most rushing touchdowns (23) since the start of last season.

On the other side of Cook's monster game against the Packers is what quarterback Kirk Cousins didn't have to do. He completed 11 of 14 attempts for 160 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers. His 1.79 average air yards per attempt were the second fewest by any player with 10 or more attempts over the past 15 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and his deepest pass in the game was 8 air yards.

The only other game a QB averaged fewer air yards per attempt on 10-plus throws also occurred in Minnesota under Zimmer. It happened with Teddy Bridgewater in 2015 against the Raiders on a day when Adrian Peterson rushed for 203 yards.

The Vikings are typically going to benefit most from allowing the offense to flow through Cook. Of course, it's a peculiar look for a quarterback like Cousins, who's making $96 million from 2020 to 2022, not to play a central role in his team winning games. But when it comes down to what gives the Vikings the best chance to win, all signs point to Cook.

Since 2017, the Vikings are 14-4 when Cook has at least 100 scrimmage yards in a game and 6-12-1 when he has fewer than 100. Based on plays in which win probability is between 10% and 90% (to eliminate garbage time), when Cook runs, the Vikings' expected points added per play is 0.21 and yields a success rate of 49%. Under those same circumstances, when the Vikings call a pass play, their EPA is 0.15 with a success rate of 45.5%.

"Our identity is play physical football, play smart football, manage the clock, get our defense back out there, and give Kirk some manageable situations to make plays, which he does in great fashion," Cook said. "We just run yards like Swiss chard. That's what it is."

As offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said last week, how Cook "goes," the Vikings usually go. Against Green Bay, Minnesota gave its fourth-year running back every opportunity to keep finding the end zone. Cook delivered, making his way into NFL history as the first player to score four touchdowns on each of his team's first four possessions.

The wind gusts at Lambeau Field factored into the Vikings having less reliance on Cousins. Zimmer said he wished he would have been able to take more shots off play-action considering how well they were running the ball had it not been for the elements. But it's clear how Zimmer feels about Cook's importance to the offense.

"We always hope Dalvin can give us that type of game," Zimmer said. "We did a lot of the things that we typically do. The wide zone. We added some inside zones. Some of it was at the end of the game when we were going to run the ball anyway. The fourth quarter, I think we ran it quite a few times. That added to the mix. But when you have success running the ball, that adds to it."

The Zimmer brand is designed to play off Cook's dynamic abilities, win time of possession and not get into sticky situations on offense. There was not a series that spoke to "Coach Zimmer Football," as Cook called it, more than Cook's second touchdown against the Packers when he ran five consecutive times, including four straight inside the 11-yard line.

Relying on the run game has also been beneficial for a team with an oft-injured defense, especially against the Packers.

"I think every offense, if you can run the ball and have eight-minute drives and score a touchdown, that would be your ideal flow for every game," center Garrett Bradbury said. "But it was kind of unique. I think there were maybe only four total drives between the two teams in the first half. I think we had seven total drives as an offense.

"And we were making them count, which is great. But at the same time, we got the ball with six minutes left in the first quarter, and then our next possession was with six minutes left in the half. So we were just kind of [playing with] the hands that we were dealt, and thankfully the run game was working, and we were able to pound on them, and there were only 14 of them."

Not every game will allow Minnesota to rely on the run, but when the opportunity presents itself, it's hard to see the Vikings deviating from that strategy.