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Tight Ends Impact on Rush Attack Begins to Create Space in Pass Game

EAGAN, Minn. — On the Vikings fifth offensive play Sunday, Minnesota lined up with three tight ends along the line of scrimmage with Dalvin Cook alone in the backfield.

Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith, Jr., were on the left side of the line, while Tyler Conklin lined up on the right side.

While the heavy formation might have indicated a run play, the Vikings picked up 20 yards on a pass from Kirk Cousins to Smith over the middle as the rookie tight end slithered away from his defender.

As Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer recapped Minnesota's 34-14 win on Monday afternoon, he pointed to one of the game's earliest plays to highlight a strength for Minnesota's offense.

"I think we have three good tight ends," Zimmer said. "And the more we can use them, you get in there, you get big groups in there and then next thing you know is they're spread out and we're throwing the football or using them in different ways … [such as] the [first-quarter] tight end screen to Kyle.

"We had a [third-quarter] corner route to Irv … and Conklin will start getting some balls, too," Zimmer said.

Through three games, the Vikings have yet to get a 100-yard receiving performance from any player.

But Sunday's win was the most prolific from Minnesota's tight ends group so far this season, as they recorded four catches for 71 yards — with each reception going for a first down. Vikings tight ends had four catches for seven yards through the first two games, with all of the production coming in Week 2.

Smith, a second-round pick from Alabama, led the way with three receptions for 60 yards. Rudolph added a gain of 11 on a screen pass. The veteran and the rookie had the highest yards of separation on catches for the Vikings in Week 3.

"It definitely felt good," Smith said. "The offense had been working super hard to just come out there and play fast, so it feels good to come out there and be rewarded and make plays."

He set a franchise record for the most receiving yards by a rookie tight end in a single game, eclipsing Andrew Jordan's 57 against New England in 1994.

"It's crazy. I didn't even know how many yards I had, I'm just out there catching the ball," Smith said. "I'm trying to run as far and as fast as I can. It's awesome making history like that. Hopefully I'll beat it each week."

The rookie's production was a byproduct of recent hard work, and opportunities opening up for him in the game plan.

"Each day, each game, you just get more comfortable and get used to it. Kind of just knowing what to expect and how to play the game," Smith said. "The coaches, they're learning [about] me and what I can do well to help this team. The more they get to see me, the more I'm out there doing and the more I can help this team.

"The beginning of camp, it was a lot thrown at me. But I knew that coming in," Smith added. "The more that I got comfortable getting reps with everything — just getting comfortable out there, really — I could go out and play faster. Once you can go out and play fast and be confident, the sky is the limit."

Added Rudolph: "Irv had a great week. He had a lot of big plays that opened up for him, and it's exciting when you see that. A lot of what we do is predicated on the run game and things that come off the run game."

The tight ends didn't just contribute in the passing game, however, as Zimmer praised Rudolph's run blocking ability Monday afternoon.

Minnesota ran for a season-high 211 yards Sunday, and now rank second in the NFL with 581 total rushing yards.

Smith said the group takes pride in its run-blocking ability to help spring Dalvin Cook and others, but the rookie also noted that an effective ground game could eventually open up more opportunities for Vikings tight ends through the air.

View the Vikings in "Big Head Mode" following the 34-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Week 3.

"Since we've been running the football so well, they want to buy in to the run game," Smith said. "If they do that, we have play action and different shots we can take to capitalize off of that. It's tough for the defenses, and it keeps them on their toes.

"Dalvin has done such a great job running the football that teams have to be accountable for that. He's been having over 100 yards each game, so that's their main [goal] … stopping him," Smith added. "Off of the play action, you can do so many different things. If they're loading the box like that, it's only going to open up more things in the passing game."