EAGAN, Minn. — Early in the second quarter of the Vikings win Thursday night, Dalvin Cook brought U.S. Bank Stadium to a roar.
He took a handoff and immediately darted to his right, finding ample running room to go 29 yards untouched for a score. Cook's speed and vision helped make the play happen, and that was combined with plenty of stout blocking up front.
Perhaps the most important block came on Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt — regarded as one of the league's top defensive players — as he was swallowed up by Blake Brandel and pushed to the left to create the opening for Cook.
Wait. Blake Brandel?
"It was something we had worked on all week. Watt just kind of fell into my lap, so I tried to run my feet," Brandel told Vikings.com. "Dalvin made a great cut, and everyone blocked it well and we sealed the edge, so it was awesome. Just a great play that we were excited to run, and it worked perfectly.
"You never know what front you're going to get … but I knew I was going to be blocking him on that play by the way they lined up," Brandel added. "Who you got is who you got … you just have to win."
Brandel's key block highlighted his busiest game of the season, as he played 17 offensive snaps, which nearly matched the 19 snaps he had coming into the game.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
With 36 total snaps on his résumé this season, the 24-year-old might not even get to 100 total snaps in 2021. But the real question for Brandel isn't about his snap count.
Because he's only lined up at one of the five offensive linemen spots just once this season, 35 of Brandel's snaps have come at a tight end spot along the line of scrimmage.
So, is he an extra offensive lineman? Or is he a tight end?
"No, I'm definitely still an offensive lineman, no question about that," Brandel said with a laugh. "I'm an offensive lineman playing tight end. I'm undercover."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer commended Brandel on Tuesday, adding his own voice to the above question.
"We've been able to use him as an extra offensive lineman," Zimmer added. "He's done a nice job in his role, not only in protection but in the run game as well."
OK, OK … so maybe we shouldn't move Brandel to the tight ends room just yet.
But it's worth noting that he actually has run some routes this season ("two or three," Brandel; noted), including one that helped lead to a touchdown in Week 10 against the Chargers.
With the Vikings at the 1-yard line, Brandel lined up along the far left of the jumbo formation, with tight end Tyler Conklin motioning to the far right.
The two ran crossing routes in the end zone, with Brandel's defender smacking into the Charger guarding Conklin as the play developed. It left Conklin all alone for a 1-yard score.
"There's a good possibility of something like that happening [on a crossing play]," Conklin said after that game. "It ended up working out perfect."
Brandel offered up his mindset to how he approaches such plays during the weekly game-plan installation.
"We practice them every week, but I've never run routes in my life," Brandel said. "But when they put it up there, I ask who I need to ask, in terms of what I should be doing. Then just try to go out and execute and hope it works."
Asked Tuesday about Brandel's contributions, Conklin praised his 6-foot-7, 315-pound teammate.
"Blake, first of all, he's really smart to be able to move around and do stuff at tight end, and he's even in motion sometimes," Conklin said. "He's a heck of a blocker. Anytime you can put some size in there that can handle moving a spot over from tackle, I think that's beneficial."
What is Conklin's opinion on the offensive lineman/tight end debate?
"I don't know if he completely wants to move over," Conklin said with a smile. "But for what he's doing, he's doing a heck of a job."
Whatever his position, there's no doubt Brandel has progressed nicely since he was 2020 sixth-round pick out of Oregon State.
The Oregon native with 48 career college starts didn't play at all in 2020, though. He instead spent the entire season on the scout team. Brandel said he learned plenty along the way.
"It was a lot of work, just giving our defense looks. But it helps to get those reps and you're going against the starters, so I was kind of just getting used to playing in the NFL," Brandel said. "Those reps are so important for any rookie, so that helped me a ton.
"[I learned about] using different techniques and different situations to block people. You can always tweak things, because in college you usually just maul a guy and that is that," Brandel added. "But everyone is big and strong in the NFL, so you have to find other ways to move people, block people and help yourself out. Just different tips and tricks, and a lot of the older guys helped me with that."
Zimmer said Brandel's progression was noticeable this summer.
"I think the biggest thing with him is … he's worked extremely hard," Zimmer said. "I don't know that anyone knew that he would make the team coming through training camp, and he did a great job in training camp."
Brandel quipped that he might start using the JUGS machine after practice, just to practice catching passes and be ready for any potential passes from Kirk Cousins.
"I probably should if I want to be catching balls," Brandel said. "Kirk can throw it pretty hard, so if it's coming my way then I better catch it. Maybe I should be hopping in there, that's not a bad idea.
"If they want to [throw it to me], that would be great," Brandel added. "But I'm just going to do what I'm told to do. I'll execute whatever they need, but that would be pretty fun."
For now, Brandel said he's just been glad to have a role on the team, adding that he stays ready on the sideline whether he gets called in for two plays or 17.
And for whether his job is to block like he did on Cook's 29-yard score, or run a route on a passing play.
"It's been cool. You just have to be ready on the sideline. I'm essentially playing tight end when we want to emphasize the run or get bigger bodies in there," Brandel said. "Just been fun to be on the field. Last year, I was on the practice squad working hard and stuff, so to actually get back out on the field has been really fun."
Wait … he just called himself a tight end.
The mystery continues …