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Battle of the Backs: Vikings-Browns to Feature Top RB Tandems

EAGAN, Minn. — The NFL's top running back tandem will be inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

But which duo that is likely pertains to which team you're pulling for in Week 4.

Minnesota will rely on Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, both of whom have proven they can handle a full workload.

Through three games, there have been a dozen players across the league who have recorded at least 100 rushing yards. Cook (131 yards in Week 2) and Mattison (112 yards in Week 3) are the only teammates to hit that milestone so far in 2021.

Cook missed Sunday's win over Seattle with an ankle injury but said Wednesday he remains optimistic to play against the Browns.

"Attacking my rehab every day real hard," Cook said. "We'll see how this thing plays out, but I'm extremely confident in what we've got going on in the training room and what they're doing to get me back on the field.

If Cook can't go, the Vikings have no problem featuring Mattison. The third-year back was just that in Week 3, tallying 171 yards from scrimmage on 32 touches.

"I woke up and couldn't play. In this league, it's either you're going to play or you can't," Cook said. "In this league, guys are flying around and doing all types of stuff, and my game is to go be explosive.

"I can't be out there if I'm not explosive or not able to help my team win a football game," Cook added. "I'd rather the next guy behind me come in and do an extremely good job and step up and do his job."

And if Cook can go, Mattison can certainly do his share of damage as well.

"I see it every day. I know who Alex is. He's like my little brother for real," Cook said. "I see him every day and the runs he makes, so it's not a surprising moment after the game for me when he has 170 yards all-purpose."

Vikings fullback C.J. Ham echoed Cook's confidence in both running back's ability to produce.

"Our running backs room in general, we take pride in what we do," Ham said. "Both of those guys are special players. Alex has shown multiple times in his career, when he steps in — Dalvin got hurt or he's down for a week — he's come in and had production.

"We don't expect anything less from anybody coming into the game," Ham added. "I'm glad Alex was able to go out there and put his best foot forward and ball out like we all know he can."

The Vikings currently rank sixth overall with 384 total rushing yards (128.0 per game), an impressive figure considering they are 12th overall in carries with 83.

But if you're looking for a team that is atop the NFL in nearly every rushing stat, the Browns are for you.

Cleveland leads the league in rushing attempts (102) and rushing touchdowns (eight), and the Browns are tied with the Ravens for the league lead with 31 runs that have moved the chains. That offense is second overall with 524 rushing yards.

The Browns boast a two-headed attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a duo that currently ranks second in combined rushing yards (427) among teammates across the league. (Cook and Mattison are at 317 combined yards, with Cook obviously playing in only two games).

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday his team will be keyed in on Chubb and Hunt, both of whom had 80-plus rushing yards against the Bears in Week 3.

"Yeah, well they had a bunch of yards against Chicago last week. They have a good scheme," Zimmer said. "They run a combination of different plays … they have weakside runs, strongside runs, they motion and shift like every single play so they try to get you in some bad misfits. And they've got good backs, a good line."

Vikings defensive tackle Michael Pierce knows the challenge of that tandem, which united in 2019, well, as he previously played with Baltimore, an AFC North foe of Cleveland.

Pierce said Cleveland's interior of left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter and right guard Wyatt Teller are among the league's top groups. (Left tackle Jedrick Wills, Jr., was the 10th overall pick in 2020, and right tackle Jack Conklin was the eighth overall pick in 2018).

Pierce said the Vikings will need to be better than they have been against the run, where Minnesota is tied for 20th overall by allowing 119.3 rushing yards per game.

"It's a tough task like every week in this league," said Pierce, who noted he expects a good amount of double-team blocks. "But with these two running backs coming in and how those guys are blocking, it's paramount we get that stuff stopped and corrected.

"They're very physical, big guys. But those backs do a good job of keeping D-linemen on those blocks, as well. That's something we don't understate, especially me at nose guard," Pierce added. "They're a physical group, talented. But anytime you have those guys that can keep linemen on blocks and then explode through different holes and see things and cut back, and all that kind of stuff, it's big-time. They profiting from it."

Even Cook couldn't help but praise the running backs on the opposing sideline.

"First off, they've got a good O-line, good physical O-line," Cook said. "You add that to two good backs in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, two of the best in the game.

"So put that together, and you've got a good running game," Cook added.

Unsurprisingly, both the Vikings and Browns rank in the top 10 in terms of time of possession.

Sunday's game could go by quickly if there are plenty of runs, but it could also make for one of the most physical games of the entire season.

"We're going to have our hands full," said Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson.

Both teams will be saying that for the next few days.