Dalvin Cook could be a key piece for Vikings against Houston

HOUSTON — Dalvin Cook could be due for a big game Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings visit the Houston Texans in a matchup of winless teams.

Cook ranks third in the NFL in yards rushing after running for a career-high 181 yards last week in a loss to Tennessee. Houston (0-3) has the worst run defense in the NFL, allowing a whopping 188.3 yards rushing a game this season.

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“It’s a very, very difficult challenge,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “We’re going to have to do a good job of fundamental football. Setting the edge, playing good gap control and then tackling. If he gets into the secondary or gets around the edge, he’s got great speed so you’re going to have an issue.”

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer has been impressed with Cook’s work this season.

“Dalvin’s great,” Zimmer said. “All backs are a little bit different, but I think Dalvin has such great feet. The way he can sliver through a hole, the way he can catch the ball. The way … for a smaller size guy, he runs with power and determination. If he gets in the open field, he’s a really tough, tough guy to get tackled.”

The Texans have not only had trouble stopping the run this year, they’ve also been unable to run the ball effectively. Houston ranks 31st in the NFL in yards rushing with just 66 a game. They had 118 yards rushing in their opener when David Johnson ran for 77 yards, but have managed just 80 yards combined in the past two games to tumble to the bottom of the league.

The Texans received Johnson in the trade with Arizona for DeAndre Hopkins and hoped he could get going to lead their running game this season after a tough year in 2019 when he managed just 345 yards rushing.

Instead he’s been unable to do much of anything since the opener and averaged just 1.77 yards a carry last week as Houston failed to score after halftime in a 28-21 loss to the Steelers.

As these teams both search for their first win, players from Minnesota and Houston insist there isn’t any panic, but instead a determination to do more to turn things around.

“You just get to work,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “This isn’t the first time anybody on this team has faced adversity, so you just go right back to work, keep your head down and embrace the grind.”

Added Houston defensive end J.J. Watt: “If whatever you’re doing at the moment’s not working, work harder. So, that’s what I’m doing. That’s what we’re doing. We’re looking forward to it paying dividends.”

INTERRUPTED ROUTINE

The Vikings had to close their facility on Tuesday and Wednesday after the Titans reported multiple positive tests for COVID-19, including players who played in the game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. Instead of conducting a normal practice on Wednesday, typically the most important day of the week when specific aspects of game plan for the upcoming opponent are installed, coaches and players participated virtually from their homes. Just like in May and June when the virus outbreak prevented teams from gathering.

“We were able to communicate and really watch tape on our iPads. That wasn’t too bad, honestly. Probably if we weren’t able to do it in the spring, it would have been a lot more hectic than it was,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to try and get in everything that we normally get in.”

FAMILIAR FACES

When the Vikings visit on Sunday, they’ll bring with them the first two men who coached the Texans in senior defensive assistant Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Capers was the first coach in franchise history and coached the Texans for their first four years before he was let go after the 2005 season. Kubiak took over after Capers and remained with the team until he was fired after 13 games in 2013. O’Brien took over the next season after Wade Phillips finished out the 2013 season as interim coach.

“I think they probably need to get a picture of that, the three of us on the field at the same time on Sunday,” O’Brien said.

Zimmer spoke at length about his affinity for all three men.

“In my opinion they’ve been very fortunate to have those three guys coaching for that franchise,” Zimmer said.

JUSTIN TIME

The Vikings had 464 yards in their loss to Tennessee, nearly tripling their output from the 28-11 loss at Indianapolis on Sept. 20. Cook was again the catalyst with his huge game, but rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson gave the unit a vital boost with seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown. The emergence of the first-round draft pick from LSU was just what Cousins needed — a dynamic complement to wide receiver Adam Thielen who can help keep defenses from selling out to stop Cook.

“It just shows the playmakers we have in this offense,” Thielen said. We’ve talked about it all training camp, going into these first couple weeks of these season, talked about all these guys that can make plays. You kind of saw a glimpse of that on Sunday. We’re going to continue to have guys step up and make plays in big situations.”

MINNESOTA (0-3) at HOUSTON (0-3)

Sunday, 12 p.m. CDT, Fox

OPENING LINE – Texans by 3 ½

RECORD VS. SPREAD – Vikings 1-2; Texans 0-3

SERIES RECORD – Vikings lead 4-0

LAST MEETING – Vikings beat Texans 31-13 on Oct. 9, 2016 in Minnesota

LAST WEEK – Vikings lost to Titans 31-30; Texans lost to Steelers 28-21

AP PRO32 RANKING – Vikings No. 27, Texans No. 22(T)

VIKINGS OFFENSE – OVERALL (22), RUSH (8), PASS (28).

VIKINGS DEFENSE – OVERALL (30), RUSH (26), PASS (30).

TEXANS OFFENSE – OVERALL (28), RUSH (31), PASS (19).

TEXANS DEFENSE – OVERALL (23), RUSH (32), PASS (3).

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Both of Houston’s head coaches prior to Bill O’Brien are on Minnesota’s staff: offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and senior defensive assistant Dom Capers. … Vikings QB Kirk Cousins has already matched his 2019 total with six interceptions. … Vikings RB Dalvin Cook has 19 rushing TDs in his last 19 games. … The Vikings lead the NFL with an average of 6.03 yards per rush. … WR Adam Thielen had seven receptions for 127 yards and a TD in his last game against the Texans. … Rookie WR Justin Jefferson had seven receptions for 175 yards with a 71-yard touchdown catch last week for the most yards receiving by a Minnesota rookie since Randy Moss had 190 yards receiving in Week 5 in 1998. … TE Kyle Rudolph has had a TD reception in five of his last six games on the road. … 2019 Al-Pro LB Eric Kendricks is tied for first in the NFL with 33 total tackles. … DE Yannick Ngakoue is the fourth player in team history with consecutive games with at least one sack and one forced fumble, joining John Randle, Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Ngakoue is third in the NFL in forced fumbles (16) since entering the league in 2016. … The Texans will host up to 13,300 fans on Sunday at NRG Stadium after no fans were allowed for the home opener. … QB Deshaun Watson has 1,804 yards passing with 17 TDs in his last six home games. … RB David Johnson has a touchdown run in two of the first three games. … WR Randall Cobb had four catches for a season-high 95 yards and a TD last week. He had six receptions for 106 yards and a score in his last game against the Vikings. … WR Will Fuller had four catches for 54 yards last week after finishing without a catch in Week 2. … WR Brandin Cooks had seven catches for 116 yards and a TD in his last game against Minnesota. … DE J.J. Watt had a sack and forced a fumble in his only game against Minnesota in 2012. Watt has four sacks and has forced a fumble in his last three games against the NFC North. He needs two sacks to become the first player in franchise history with 100 sacks. … DE Charles Omenihu has a sack in the last two games. … LB Whitney Mercilus had 1 ½ sacks in his last game against the Vikings. … S Eric Murray forced a fumble and defended a pass in Week 3. … Fantasy tip: Cook had a career-high 181 yards rushing last week and the Texans have the NFL’s worst run defense, allowing 188.3 yards a game.