EAGAN, Minn. — Establishing the run game early became a point of emphasis for Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and his staff during their preparation for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
It worked, as Minnesota rushed for a season-high 173 yards. The Vikings were led by running back Dalvin Cook, who recorded his first 100-yard-plus outing of the season with 111 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown in Minnesota's 34-26 victory.
It wasn't just Cook who found success on the ground, though. Alexander Mattison totaled 40 yards and a touchdown on five carries, and quarterback Kirk Cousins added 22 yards and a score on four runs.
Cousins' scoring scamper occurred on the Vikings opening drive. On third-and-4 from the Cardinals 17-yard line, Cousins ran up the middle before bouncing to the outside and diving into the end zone.
O'Connell noted Cousins' awareness on the impactful play.
"There's a lot that goes into it pre-snap. He knows the coverage, he knows whether it is man or zone, whether there's going to be vision on him or more on the receivers," O'Connell said to Twin Cities reporters on Monday. "Just like he did in that Chicago game to get us a big crucial first down in the high red [zone] before we went in to score, I thought him not only getting the first down right there, but I think he almost hit 19 miles an hour on that scramble turning the corner to go into the end zone.
"Our team really got a lot of juice out of that," O'Connnell added. "It was another example of us getting an opportunity to have the ball to start a game and going down and getting seven points."
View postgame celebration photos from the Vikings 34-26 win over the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 30.
O'Connell credited offensive line coaches Chris Kuper and Justin Rascati and running backs coach Curtis Modkins for creating solid schemes in the run game and Cousins for his execution at the line of scrimmage.
"I thought Chris, Curtis and Justin came up with some good schemes coming out of the bye to really take advantage of getting back to kind of that premier mentality and having a plan set up to where, if we didn't like the look of a run, what run were we getting, to really take advantage of what would take away the initial call?" O'Connell said. "And then it's on Kirk to really run the whole show. I thought his decision-making at the line of scrimmage, … orchestrating a lot of things late in the play clock to really highlight some of that plan to help it come to life were a real part of what made yesterday go."
The Vikings were perfect in their red-zone trips on Sunday with a season-high 5-for-5. Three of Minnesota's touchdowns were scored on the ground, and the other two were on 5-yard and 1-yard passes from Cousins to wide receiver K.J. Osborn and tight end Johnny Mundt, respectively.
"I've got to continue to have trust that we can run it in and be physical down [in the red zone]," O'Connell said on Sunday. "Two touchdown passes, where one of which, we got big. The illusion of a run, found somebody pretty open again. Then, third down, tight coverage, all-out pressure. Kirk makes a great protection call. K.J. in that moment, making a huge play. … That level of execution is what was the secret to making that go at that moment when we had to do it."
Here are two additional takeaways from O'Connell's availability on Monday:
Tight ends joining the offensive mix
O'Connell said tight end Irv Smith, Jr., was injured late in the game on Sunday, and is considered a "week-to-week type scenario."
O'Connell added the Vikings have another week before Ben Ellefson could be activated from Injured Reserve and potentially rejoin Smith and Mundt on the 53-man roster. Minnesota also has veteran Jacob Hollister and rookie Nick Muse on its practice squad.
"[Ben's] been really attacking his rehab and seems to be right on schedule with all the updates I get. Hopefully we'll be able to add him back into the mix sooner rather than later," O'Connell said. "When I look at that group, whether it's a week-to-week thing, whatever we see that we need to do to continue to evolve as an offense and have that tight end position be a big part of what we do with some real opportunities inside out in the pass game when you have the weapons we do at the receiver position, so that's our job as a staff to continue to give Kirk all the weapons and possibilities to make five eligible [pass catchers] come to life. I expect a lot out of that room when their number is called."
Mundt's touchdown — in his 54th regular-season game — was his first trip to the end zone in a non-preseason game.
Osborn said Mundt has been a great leader coming from the Los Angeles Rams and has made plays both as a pass catcher and a blocker in the run game.
"Johnny's done a great job. Obviously coming over from Los Angeles, he knew the offense, so when he came in, he was a big help to us. I'm working side-by-side with him in the run game a lot, even the pass game, we're trying to learn stuff and he's reminding us and telling us things in the huddle that's really helped us out," Osborn said. "We're able to talk to him and the guys have great communication with him.
"He's made some great plays and was rewarded yesterday with his first career touchdown, obviously that's huge, undrafted guy that's coming in and doing great things for us, so I'm super happy to see it and I can't wait for him to keep making plays," Osborn added.
Defense shows its depth
On the other side of the ball, O'Connell also said defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is "week-to-week" after suffering a calf injury Sunday.
O'Connell said Tomlinson has been "a force for us up front" all season.
"Every single week, we come in after these games, and [defensive line coach] Chris Rumph's telling our staff that 'DT' had another really great game and showed up in the run and the pass," O'Connell said. "He's really activated some dynamic rush moves and speed to power and different athletic, winning 1-on-1 matchups in tight moments in games. If he's going to indeed be down, we want to get him healthy as soon as we possibly can. Whether that's this week or if he's unable to go, we're going to need that group to step up."
O'Connell said he saw that depth shine after Tomlinson left the game.
"I thought [defensive tackle] Harrison Phillips played one of his most complete games of the season. We saw him show up in some rush, which was really important, trying to keep [Arizona quarterback] Kyler Murray in that pocket and allow those edge guys to have chances to get home without disrupting the integrity of that pocket where he'd have the ability to get up and out and attack, which [Murray is] one of the best in the league at doing," O'Connell added. "So, just across the board, we're going to need those guys, top to bottom, all finding their own roles.
"We had [Khyiris] Tonga up for the first time, and I thought his strength and play strength really showed up at times in the run game, which will be something we'll need to, obviously, see more of as well as some of those other guys on maybe some of those passing downs," O'Connell added.