Vikings surge into second half thanks to Cousins, Cook
MINNEAPOLIS — This October onslaught for Minnesota has been stopped only by the calendar, not an impending slump.
With four consecutive victories by double-digit points, the Vikings (6-2) have recovered remarkably from those two defeats on the road by division rivals that raised questions amid the so-so first month of the season about the viability of quarterback Kirk Cousins and the offense as a whole.
Now comes the hard part.
"Six-and-two doesn't mean a whole lot if you don't turn the last eight games into something special," Cousins said, "and we've got some big-time games up ahead. These aren't going to be easy opponents. We're going to be playing in tough environments against really good football teams."
The second half of the schedule starts with consecutive road games against Kansas City (Nov. 3) and Dallas (Nov. 10), both first-place teams. That daunting third quarter also includes a trip to Seattle (Dec. 1). Though they have three of their last four games at home, avenging those losses to Green Bay (Dec. 23) and Chicago (Dec. 29) won't be automatic.
"Starting off the season two-and-two, everybody was doubting us, but we know what we're capable of," linebacker Eric Kendricks said.
The defense has largely been as advertised. Kicker Dan Bailey and punter/holder Britton Colquitt have stabilized the special teams. The key to the surge, though, has been the run-pass balance the offense has struck over the last four weeks.
Dalvin Cook is the NFL leader in yards from scrimmage (1,116), using his power, vision, speed and agility to set up Cousins for a diverse passing attack that has succeeded with screens to the running backs, rollouts to the tight ends underneath and deep balls to Stefon Diggs. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has made creative, aggressive calls and deftly adapted to the flow of the game. The offensive line has taken well to the new zone blocking scheme, whether creating cutback lanes for Cook or keeping a clean pocket for Cousins.
Over the last four games, Cousins has completed 91 of 116 passes (78.5 with an average of 10.9 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns and one fluke interception that occurred when a sideline pass to Diggs bounced off his facemask and back toward the field of play. Cousins was 23 for 26 to set a franchise record (88.5%), with two throwaways under pressure and one drop by Cook accounting for the only incompletions.
"Things are going good, but there was a point where things weren't good, and the house was burning down and everybody was panicking, so at this point we're taking it one minute at a time, one day at a time," Diggs said.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The pass coverage has been more vulnerable than usual, with cornerback Xavier Rhodes continuing to be targeted on short and medium-range throws. Case Keenum found a rhythm in the first half, directing two productive drives that reached the 12 and the 3, but the Vikings stiffened on third down and forced field goals.
Cook has put himself in the conversation for NFL MVP award candidates, but rookie Alexander Mattison has rather quietly established himself as a reliable reliever. The third-round draft pick from Boise State has 68 carries for 331 yards.
Left guard Pat Elflein was overpowered by Jonathan Allen for one of Washington's three sacks, a third-and-goal play where Allen essentially carried Elflein with him on the way to taking down Cousins. Elflein was also called for three holding penalties in the game, one of which was declined.
Wide receiver Adam Thielen was sidelined on Thursday night for the first time in his NFL career, his streak of 90 consecutive games played stopped by a hamstring injury that had only four days to heal due to the shortened week. Zimmer said he believes "there's a good chance" Thielen will be ready to play against the Chiefs. Rhodes was put in the concussion protocol after a collision with Redskins tight end Jeremy Sprinkle on the second snap of the second half. Rhodes didn't play after that, but the Vikings announced he was cleared to return.
452 — Receiving yards for Diggs over the last three games, a franchise record for that span. Randy Moss had 446 yards over a three-game stretch in 2001.
Shoring up the secondary a bit will be important, even if 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes remains out next week. Both the Chiefs and the Cowboys have dangerous offenses. The return of cornerback Holton Hill from suspension ought to help with depth.