Riding Dalvin Cook will be key to Vikings' playoff push

MINNEAPOLIS -- The first of 63 plays Kevin Stefanski called in his debut as interim offensive coordinator went to Dalvin Cook. The Minnesota Vikings playcaller then went back to the running back on the next play, setting Cook up for a 27-yard reception.

Three plays later, Stefanski delegated to Cook again, and then routinely throughout. By the end of Minnesota's 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, Cook had 20 touches (19 rushes, one reception), a career-high 136 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns.

Stefanski received praise from players for how he schemed Minnesota back into the win column after the Vikings had lost three of their previous four games. By employing a simple strategy in getting the ball to the team's most dynamic playmaker, Minnesota was able to keep its playoff hopes alive while foreshadowing how this offense will operate going forward.

"That's the guy we see every day in practice -- the guy that we've been waiting on to give those opportunities to and carry this offense," receiver Adam Thielen said of Cook. "We know that's what kind of player he is and what he means to this offense. We're going to need that moving forward and we're going to ride that into the rest of the year."

The Vikings caught a glimpse of what can transpire if Cook is the focal point of the offense. Former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo spoke at length about wanting to make that happen, but a hamstring injury that sidelined Cook for the majority of Weeks 3-8 prevented that from transpiring. Aside from an explosive return against Detroit and solid outing against Green Bay, Cook had been quiet as of late. The rusher could have been used more when the Vikings were within striking distance at New England, something DeFilippo said before he was fired last week, but that's not the way things went down.

Only one other time this season did Cook have at least 20 touches in a game -- Week 1 against San Francisco. His usage over the last month and the circumstances that may have held him back was something Cook didn't want to rehash after his career day.

"We're not going backwards, we’re going forwards," Cook said. "We had a good game plan [Sunday]. We executed, we won today. We are going forward from here. Everything that happened in the past is gone. We can't control that. We can't do anything about that. We can control what we can control right now."

Stefanski finally got the Vikings to run the ball, topping out at 220 yards on 40 carries split up between Cook, Latavius Murray, Stefon Diggs and a handful of scrambles by Kirk Cousins. Though that production was generated against the league's 31st rushing defense, the Vikings found the right fix at the right time.

"We were hitting 5, 6 yards a carry and you know, Cook is a pretty talented player and when he's got the ball in his hands, typically good things happen," coach Mike Zimmer said. "You know, Latavius is obviously a good, hard, physical running back, so I thought all that was good. When you're running the ball it sets up play-action passes."

What Cook did on the ground paved the way for Cousins to sell effective play-action under center. Cousins went 6-of-6 for 103 yards and a touchdown on such plays, something that should continue to be a regular part of what the Vikings want to do given the strengths of their personnel.

The way the Vikings dismantled the Dolphins, eyeing to pick apart a weak linebacker corps, is how they can continue to be successful, especially against Detroit. Stefanski's game plan had a Pat Shurmur-esque vibe to it, with the routine use of two tight end sets (the Vikings are very happy to have a healthy David Morgan again) and heavy personnel packages (the Vikings rotated between 22 and 12 personnel on their first three touchdowns in the first quarter), zone-blocking schemes that played to the strength of the O-line and several series where he wasn't afraid to utilize his rushers on repeated downs.

Next week, the challenge is Detroit, which held Buffalo to 117 yards rushing in a 14-13 loss. Stefanski can again pull back on what he learned under Shurmur to notch another critical win. At Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day in 2017, Minnesota went to Murray on four straight plays that spanned 75 yards and were capped off with a 2-yard touchdown en route to a 30-23 win.

That mindset of pounding the ball has worked when the Vikings have needed it to. Though it's too early to say whether Minnesota has remedied the issues that handicapped the offense at times, Stefanski found an effective work-around by putting the ball in the hands of his best playmaker; the one the Vikings need to operate around in order to make a deep run in the postseason.