There's no secret about what the Vikings intend for their offensive identity.
Running the football is a mindset that has been preached about and harped on since the early days of offseason meetings, back when Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak was laying the foundation for what he wanted the 2020 Vikings offense to look like.
And with running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison at his disposal — along with Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's preference for running the ball — Kubiak has dug into his coaching roots to ensure that the Vikings will rely upon their ground game during the 2020 season.
And at the midway point of this season, it's clear that the Vikings rushing attack is not only the strength of the offense, but perhaps the entire team, too.
"I think it's commitment to running the ball. You can sit there and say, 'This guy was a great player,' or 'That guy was a great player,' and you've got to have them to be successful," Kubiak said this offseason about his offensive philosophy. "But I think anything you do in football, if you're committed to something, then you've probably got a pretty good chance of being successful at it.
"We really start our classroom offensively, we walk into the room and tell our guys, 'We're committed to running the football and being a physical team.' I work for a head coach that talks that same way," Kubiak added. "It's just really a mindset of saying, 'Hey, we're going to be good at doing this and we're not going to find ways not to run the ball. We're going to find ways to run the ball.' I think it just gets back to commitment."
The 2020 season marks Kubiak's 25th season in the league as a coach, with 23 of those spent as either a head coach or offensive coordinator.
In 22 previous seasons in either of those roles, Kubiak's offenses have ranked first or second in rushing attempts six times and have 11 finishes in the top 10. His offenses were in the top five in rushing yards 10 times and top 10 in rushing yards 14 times in those 22 years.
There's a good chance the 2020 Vikings offense could add to those numbers, as Minnesota ranks sixth in rushing yards at 144.0 yards per game entering Week 9.
Through the first six games of the season, turnovers and an inability to play with the lead limited Minnesota's overall rushing attempts, but the output on the ground was still productive.
But in windy conditions in Week 8 against the Packers, the Vikings thrived at what they do best. Minnesota put up 173 yards on 34 attempts, with Cook leading the way with 163 yards and three scores on 30 carries [5.43 yards per carry].
"That's Coach Zim' football right there. That's all I can say," Cook said. "That's Coach Zim's identity, and that's the type of football we play in Minnesota."
Cook and Mattison make up a strong 1-2 punch, with ESPN naming them the league's top running back duo back in early October.
That distinction has been easy to see on the field, even if the Vikings have struggled to a 2-5 record so far in 2020.
Cook was a 2017 second-round pick who showed flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons before putting together a Pro-Bowl campaign in 2019 with his first 1,000-yard season and 13 rushing touchdowns.
He signed a multi-year contract extension the day before the start of the 2020 season and has promptly played like one of the game's best all-around backs.
Cook has rushed for 652 yards in six games played, which ranks second in the NFL. And his 10 rushing touchdowns rank first and are a franchise record for the most through Week 8 of a season. Cook garnered NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his stellar performance at Green Bay. He also was voted as FedEx Ground Player of the Week.
"He's a terrific football player, great person, good leader," Zimmer said of his starting running back. "He runs extremely hard, catches the ball well."
Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said Cook's evolution as a leader — Cook was named a season-long captain in September — has helped the team on and off the field.
"He has an energy about him. He captures up young men. He lives it," Polamalu said. "He works his tail off, he's a smart football player, he wants [his teammates] to have joy and have fun because he loves the game and he loves being a teammate.
"[Him being named a captain] … it's well-earned," Polamalu added. "Since he's walked through the doors here, all he's done is work hard and produce. The definition of a leader is to make everybody around him better, and I believe he has."
And in his second season in the NFL, Mattison tries to make sure opposing defenses don't get a break when Cook needs a breather.
Mattison was a 2019 third-round pick who rushed for 462 yards and a score as a rookie. He's been even better in his second season, with 253 rushing yards and a touchdown through seven games.
"I guess the best compliment I can give 'Matt' is that when Dalvin leaves the game, I don't change my mindset at all," Kubiak said. "I mean he's a fine, young player, is playing behind a very established player in this league, so he's got a great example in front of him.
"[Mattison] is a three-down player. He understands pass protections, catches the ball really well … so we're really proud of [his progression]," Kubiak added. "I would say everybody expects it from him, because of watching him work, watching him practice and his preparation as a player. [Mattison] has got a very bright future."
Cook said he's enjoyed watching his younger teammate evolve over the past season-and-a-half.
"I try to give him as many tips and everything I can," Cook said. "He sees the field how I see the field, and it's crazy how we see things so similar.
"He's just a bigger version. When he comes in, he's trying to break the home run, too," Cook added. "But he knows what's ahead of him. I do think he is a similar version of me."
It remains to be seen how the final eight games play out for the Vikings as they navigate a unique season.
But with a two-headed monster at running back, plus one of the league's best fullbacks in C.J. Ham, it's clear Minnesota will continue to rely on its successful ground game, both now and in the future.
"I know how we built this roster," said Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman. "We built this roster basically on being able to run the ball, play-action pass … and that's how we've had the most success."
By: Eric Smith