EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Kyle Rudolph is catching fire for the Vikings with a little help from his basketball background.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame of Rudolph is tasked with doing multiple things for the Vikings.
Rudolph runs routes and catches. He's helps protect in the passing game. He blocks on run plays.
As of late, Rudolph has been using his large frame to box out defenders, similar to the way he did for rebounds when he was Second Team All-State for his Ohio high school. An increased number of catches — despite traffic of defenders — have followed.
"Growing up as a basketball player, it's always kind of translated to football for me," Rudolph said. "It means a lot to me that he has the trust in me to throw balls when guys are around because as a tight end, the catches we have to make are the contested catches and catches in traffic. Teddy [Bridgewater] has shown throughout the season that he has the trust in me to throw balls when guys are around."
Rudolph made his deepest mark as a receiver this season against Green Bay when he caught six passes for a career-high 106 yards and a career long 47-yard touchdown.
"I think the Green Bay game was big for us in terms of building our confidence, not only in the passing game in general but in each other," Rudolph said.
The game against the Packers has proven to be catalysts for Rudolph. The 2011 second-round pick has 22 catches in the past four games, which is the third-most among tight ends in the NFL since Nov. 22 and has six or more in three of the past four games. Rudolph caught six passes for 67 yards at Arizona, and he enters Sunday's game against the Bears with a team-leading 45 receptions and four receiving touchdowns.
"I think there's two things – I think it's who we're playing and the situations that we're in, and number two would be Teddy is throwing the ball to him when he's covered more than he was [earlier this season]," Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner said. "Kyle is not a guy that's going to get great separation, but he's a big-body presence. He's thrown the ball where, we had one on the sideline, third down, the defender almost got a hand on the ball, Teddy put it out in front. (Rudolph is) a big man, he went up and got it and ran down the sideline."
The Vikings thought Rudolph's abilities would suit them well against the Packers, and he delivered the sixth-highest receiving yards total in one game by a Vikings tight end. The 47-yard catch was perfectly placed by Bridgewater, and Rudolph walled off Micah Hyde to collect it. Rudolph also showed balance to finish the play, keeping upright and in bounds along the sideline to make it to the end zone.
"Since that was such tight coverage, there was really no one else behind," Rudolph said. "I was able to get up out of the tackle, and there was no one left."
A play like that is Rudolph to the core, one that helped him make the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season and win MVP honors in the game, but not every game airs it out like the annual all-star event.
Much of the Vikings offensive identity this season has been grounding and pounding with Peterson, who leads the NFL in rushing with 1,251 yards and has six games with 100 or more rush yards this season.
"He's kind of made a commitment to understand that he can be a big factor in helping us run the football," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "Kyle is a very conscientious kid. Obviously he's kind of a receiver at heart, he wants to catch the ball like everybody does, he's kind of bought in to the concept as well about, 'This is who we are, and I don't know when my opportunity is going to come, but when it does, I have to take advantage of it.' "
Rather than rip catches down the seam in Atlanta, the plan was to help the Vikings play possession football: shorter routes to keep the sticks moving and the ball out of the hands of a potent Falcons offense. Rudolph led all receivers with seven catches and totaled a team-high 53 yards.
He had catches of 12 and 13 yards on Minnesota's first touchdown drive. In the fourth quarter, he made a pair of second-and-9s into third-and-manageable with catches on a drive that ended with a field goal to put the Vikings up 13-3.
Rudolph also has been tasked this year with helping offensive linemen block edge rushers to allow completions to receivers. It's dirty work, deeds that go unnoticed and underappreciated in the fantasy football era, but are valuable to teammates and the coaching staff.
"Kyle is a great kid, he works hard, he understands really what we're trying to get done," Zimmer said. "I'm really proud of him, the way he has handled everything this year."
Strengthening defense expected: When the Vikings (8-5) host the Bears (5-8) at noon (CT) Sunday, they'll go against a defense that is second in the NFL in pass yards allowed. Chicago has allowed an average of 18.7 points in its past six games.
"They do a great job. They're very stout, they don't give up a lot of big plays," Zimmer said. "I wouldn't say they're a huge pressure team, but they have the two corners [Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter], both are pretty good guys. Young safety [Adrian] Amos, is a physical, downhill guy. Linebackers can all run. They have some thickness up front, which makes it difficult plus the outside linebackers. I think, 99 [Lamarr Houston], he's playing really well right now."
Shorthanded again: The Vikings will be without a couple of defensive stars as Harrison Smith (knee/hamstring) and Anthony Barr (groin/hand) have been ruled out. DE Scott Crichton (concussion/neck) and receiver Charles Johnson (ankle) also have been ruled out by Minnesota. Click here for the full injury reports for both teams.