For all the talk on Twitter about how you should never pay running backs, how they're overvalued, it is still really fun to watch someone just run all over a defense. Dalvin Cook went through, around, and by the Green Bay Packers defense for 200 total yards and four touchdowns last Sunday. It was an awesome performance that propelled Minnesota to a needed win.
Cook didn't do it by himself, of course, and this column is going to focus on the men in front of him that led to his massive day. From the first drive of the game, Minnesota's offensive line pushed around the Packers front seven. They marched right down the field, and their first touchdown was an absolute beauty of a run play.
What a start to the game. The first guy that jumps out at me on this inside zone is right guard Ezra Cleveland (72). I love everything about him here. He takes a great first step and plays with good pad level, but what really stands out is how he runs his feet to finish the block. Look at him accelerate his feet after contact and finish the block to the ground. Impressive stuff from the rookie.
I was actually really impressed with Cleveland for the most part. He wasn't perfect, but after what the Vikings had trotted out at right guard for the first few weeks, he was nothing short of a revelation. He moves well and didn't get bullied too much by bigger defensive tackles, which is the concern when you play a young guy who projected as a tackle inside. Cleveland doesn't have to be a Pro Bowler to be a clear upgrade for the Vikings offensive line.
Right tackle Brian O'Neill (75) is also solid on the touchdown. He's working in combination with the tight end (Kyle Rudolph, 82), who doesn't give him much help, to be honest. O'Neill has to fight to keep the defensive lineman covered up. First, he cuts him off in the B-gap, but then he manages to hold on when the defender tries to cross his face once Cook makes his cutback. That's tougher than it looks.
The front-side combination between the left guard (Dakota Dozier, 78) and center (Garrett Bradbury, 56) isn't very good, but with how Green Bay plays this, this was always going to the back side anyways. Any time you see a hole this big in an NFL game, there are some clear missteps from the defense. Green Bay has no one in the D-gap. My bet is 91 (Preston Smith) is supposed to wrong-arm the tight end coming across the formation (Irv Smith, 84) and spill the back into the cornerback (Jaire Alexander, 23). But even that means you're relying on a corner to tackle one of the best runners in the NFL, which is something the Vikings would take all day.
This is the Vikings' base run play. It's outside zone with the H-back responsible for the force player (the strong safety in this case, who is actually a cornerback: Josh Jackson, 37). They execute this beautifully across the board. It starts with Tyler Conklin at play-side tight end. He attacks the edge defender's (Smith again) outside shoulder and forces him to widen. Smith at H-back does a nice job fitting into the line and knocking Conklin's defender back onto him and then climbing to the safety.
Riley Reiff at left tackle covers up the defensive end (Dean Lowry, 94) completely and doesn't allow any penetration in doing so. Cook actually has a two-way go because of that. Dozier at left guard isn't perfect here, but he's also trying to block a linebacker who does something dumb. It's hard to block guys who are freelancing on defense, and 51 here (Krys Barnes) tries to run through a gap that he doesn't have a chance to make a play through. As an offensive lineman, it's hard to account for guys doing random stuff that doesn't fit with what the rest of the defense is doing. Luckily no one has to block the play-side linebacker because he takes himself out of the play, but if that linebacker is in the B-gap where he's supposed to be, Dozier is probably there to block him.
Moving inside, Bradbury at center probably does the best job of anyone on the play. He reaches a shaded nose tackle (Kingsley Keke, 96) who is playing hard frontside the entire play. Just great footwork and athleticism to get the block made. And finally, the backside combo between Cleveland and O'Neill is textbook too. Cleveland gives O'Neill just enough help sealing off the 3-technique (Kenny Clark, 97) before climbing to the second level. It's "only" 9 yards, but this is just about a perfectly blocked play.
This is not a perfectly blocked play but it gains a lot more than 9 yards. I think the rookie Cleveland missed the call in the huddle. My guess is that the Vikings are running inside zone with a lock call on the back side so the right guard, right tackle, and tight end are all locked up man to man back there and the fullback is leading on the backside linebacker. Cleveland steps and acts like he's working a combo with the right tackle up to the linebacker. Just by the way Cleveland steps and how he only tries to take half of the defensive tackle, plus how quickly he moves onto the linebacker after he falls off the defensive tackle, leads me to believe he thought the tackle was coming with him. But with what the tight end is doing, it looks like O'Neill is right and Cleveland is messed up.
Still, Dalvin Cook saves the rookie by making the first guy miss and everyone else for Minnesota does what they need to do. Adam Thielen out wide and O'Neill at right tackle are particularly strong here.
It wasn't just the running game where the offensive line helped spring Cook. This screen was probably the biggest play of the game. This is a basic screen that literally every NFL team has in the playbook. The three components of the base screen from an offensive line standpoint are kickout, alley, peel guy.
The play-side guard gets flat and kicks out any force defender (usually a defensive back). Dozier is a little slow getting out -- he gets beat out by the center, in fact -- but he gets the force player once he's out there.
Bradbury at center is the first one out because he doesn't have to hold anyone up in the passing game. He does a nice job of tracking the linebacker and cutting him down. It's always a good idea to cut on screen blocks because the guys you are blocking are going to be much quicker than you, so it'll be tempting to hold them when they change direction suddenly. You eliminate that risk when you just throw at their legs.
Finally, Cleveland is responsible for any chasing defenders who read the screen. Once he sees that no one reads it for Green Bay, he gets up to the field and blocks a guy the wide receiver was supposed to get. Great hustle that ends up springing the touchdown.
The Vikings didn't throw it much, but the protection was as good as I've seen from Minnesota this year as well. It was a pretty complete performance from the Vikings offensive line.