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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Makes Case for Vikings to Adopt 'Pass-First' Model

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer told media members Monday that Dalvin Cook's status is "day to day" after suffering a shoulder injury at San Francisco.

So while it seems hopeful the injury won't be season-ending, the Vikings also have to operate without knowing exactly when Cook will be back in the lineup.

Chad Graff of The Athletic said Cook's injury should press Minnesota to "become a pass-first team" down the stretch. Graff wrote:

[It's] time for the Vikings to alter their offensive identity again, even if it's only for the final six weeks of the season. It's time for the Vikings to embrace a passing offense that more closely resembles what the rest of the league is doing.

For the first time, the Vikings have the wide receiver depth to make it possible. For the first time, they have a passing offense that has been significantly more productive than their rushing game. And for the first time, they have enough of a reason that Zimmer might just consider abandoning his balanced attack.

Graff argued that "historical precedent would indicate [Cook] won't be the same explosive player" immediately returning from injury. He also noted, though, that Minnesota's passing game has proved more effective this season, anyway.

Frankly, such a move could have been justified even before Cook got hurt. For whatever reason, the Vikings running game this season hasn't been nearly as efficient as in recent years. Based on expected points added per play, the Vikings rank sixth in the league on their passing attempts and 27thon rushing attempts.

That difference could get even more drastic if the Vikings lean on Alexander Mattison in the same role that Cook occupies. Even though Mattison had success as a backup in his first two years, he's ranked as one of the least-efficient rushers in the NFL this season. Perhaps they could lean on rookie Kene Nwangwu more, but that's far from a sure thing since he just had his first NFL carry Sunday.

Graff noted the emergence of K.J. Osborn as a No. 3 option at receiver behind "one of the league's best receiving duos in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson."

The Vikings already have made adaptations this season to offset the loss of Irv Smith, Jr., to a torn meniscus, which likely created more targets for Osborn, so there might be more opportunities through the air now.

It may go against Zimmer's nature. It may go against the way this team is built. This certainly wasn't the plan at the outset. But the best coaches and the best teams adapt.

CBS Sports ranks NFC teams fighting for Wild Card spots

As much as a loss to the 49ers hurt, the Vikings (5-6) have six games remaining and aren’t giving up without a fight.

Nor should they, being that Minnesota is still in the mix for a Wild Card playoff berth. CBS Sports' Cody Benjamin ranked all the NFC teams fighting for Wild Card positioning and wrote the following:

With 12 weeks of NFL football in the books, the 2021 playoff picture is starting to take shape. And the NFC, in particular, is set to play host to a circus of a [Wild Card] race, with nearly a dozen teams potentially fighting over three postseason berths.

Benjamin slated the Vikings No. 3 on his list.

Yes, Mike Zimmer's defense still has issues, and now Dalvin Cook is [injured]. But they're gonna be in the mix as long as Kirk Cousins keeps throwing to Justin Jefferson. Seriously. Their offense, when healthy, is way more explosive than you think. That alone should keep them feisty all the way to the finish line.

Right now, the Vikings are eighth in the NFC and would miss the No. 7 seed because of a tiebreaker held by Washington (5-2 record in conference games, compared to 4-3 for Minnesota). They will face the winless Lions at Detroit this weekend in hopes of once again returning to .500.

The only two teams ranked ahead of Minnesota by Benjamin were the Rams (7-4) and 49ers (6-5). Benjamin ranked the Washington Football Team (5-6), with former Vikings backup QB Taylor Heinicke, at No. 4.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.

Cleveland spotlighted by PFF

Analytics site Pro Football Focus rolled out its Week 12 Team of the Week and various awards, and Vikings left guard Ezra Cleveland landed on the list.

Cleveland joined Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata, Rams center Brian Allen, Cowboys guard Zack Martin and Eagles tackle Lane Johnson.

Cleveland received an overall PFF grade of 93.6, which topped all guards across the league in Week 12. His run-blocking grade was 92.1, and his pass-blocking grade was 77.8.

Looking solely at the Vikings, Cleveland was Minnesota's highest-graded offensive player ahead of center Mason Cole (84.6).