The Vikings lapped the Raiders at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday by adhering to a formula from which, in all likelihood, they’d prefer not to deviate.
They ran for 211 yards against a hapless Oakland defense, cruising to a three-touchdown lead for the second straight home game and again effectively relegating Kirk Cousins to a supporting role after his disastrous day at Lambeau Field in Week 2.
But a Week 3 victory at home, 52 weeks after 2018’s out-of-body experience against Buffalo, didn’t need to come with many qualifiers.
“[It] feels a lot like Week 1: we got out ahead early and the defense played so well early — kept getting us the ball back,” Cousins said. “The way we ran the ball made a big difference and really told the story of the game.”
In the Vikings’ 34-14 win, Dalvin Cook became the first player in Vikings history to run for 100 yards in each of his first three games, dazzling with his nimble feet on a 16-carry, 110-yard day. Alexander Mattison feasted on a big hole in the Raiders’ defense for a 10-yard score, cutting back to his left and hurdling into the end zone from the four for his first career touchdown.
Even third-stringer Mike Boone burst through for a 24-yard run in the fourth quarter, by a point in the game where Cook’s job was to smile on the sidelines as the U.S. Bank Stadium video boards detailed his statistical accomplishments.
It allowed the Vikings to follow much of the same formula against the Raiders as they used against the Falcons in Week 1. On Sunday, Cousins threw just 21 passes, completing 15 of them for 174 yards — including a 35-yard score to Adam Thielen he let fly from a clean pocket. His first fourth-quarter pass at U.S. Bank Stadium won’t come until at least Oct. 13; Cousins didn’t throw one in the Falcons game, and he didn’t throw one again on Sunday.
“Small sample size still a little bit — only three games,” Cousins said. “I think that will probably even itself out as the year goes on. But if it doesn’t, I would shrug my shoulders and say, ‘Who cares? We don’t need to. Let’s just win, however we have to do that.’”
The Vikings have been able to run the ball at home while up by three touchdowns; they were also able to do so last week in Green Bay when they were climbing out of a 21-point hole. But at home, with the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd at its vociferous best, the Vikings’ defense could reap the benefits of home-field advantage against a Raiders defense missing two starting offensive linemen.
They kept safety Harrison Smith in deep coverage more often on Sunday, forcing Derek Carr to make underneath throws and attempt to sustain drives against their defense. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, just eight of Carr’s 34 pass attempts traveled 10 or more yards down the field. His first touchdown — on a flea-flicker from the Vikings’ 29 — came on a downfield throw, but so did the interception he threw to Smith, who was waiting over the top of the Vikings’ defense after making a pre-snap adjustment to a two-deep safety look.
With tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen controlling the line of scrimmage, linebacker Eric Kendricks had room to run, on a day where his seven tackles included a number of run stops near the line of scrimmage. And even though Raiders tight end Darren Waller (who had 134 yards on 13 catches) became the first opposing receiver to surpass 100 yards at U.S. Bank Stadium, he did so largely on quick throws from Carr after the game was out of reach. When things were still close, the Raiders quarterback had few options downfield.
“We see maximum protection all the time,” Zimmer said. “People do not want us to blitz them; so be it. We just get a chance to rush on tight ends, we get a chance to cover, we get a chance to do some other things.”
The Vikings’ defensive eclecticism under Zimmer is well-established by now; the 2019 version of their offense is still looking to show it can consistently do more than run the ball. It could be forced to do so next Sunday in Chicago, against a Bears defense that was the NFL’s toughest to run against last year.
Unless they’re forced to abandon the formula, though, there’s no reason to do so at this point. Not when it’s worked as well as it has in two home games.
“They won’t all be like [Sunday],” Zimmer said. “Chicago will be very difficult to run the football on, I’m sure. But we’re going to go in there and give it a shot.”