MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line set the tone. Dalvin Cook then hit the high note.
As his predecessor Adrian Peterson watched from the sideline, Cook broke a Vikings record for most rushing yards in a debut with 127 on 22 carries, topping the 103-yard mark Peterson set back in his rookie season 10 years ago.
Cook stole the show at Peterson’s Minnesota homecoming. Going from lead back to part of the New Orleans rushing trio, the 32-year-old Peterson caught more attention for an exchange with head coach Sean Payton than he did in the Saints backfield, amassing a career-low six carries for 18 yards on nine snaps played.
The torch was officially passed on Monday night, and Cook’s early success shouldn’t come as a surprise given what the Vikings brought him here to do and the defense he did it against.
New Orleans allowed the second-most points per game (28.4) last season, and despite some preseason hype, the Saints’ inability to establish a consistent pass rush is still the same problem it was in 2016, 2015 and 2014.
Cook was the workhorse he was expected to be. He’s in Minnesota because he’s going to play a big part in modernizing Minnesota’s offense, notably by adding the element of a running back in the passing game. A few drops tripped him up early, but that shouldn’t raise many eyebrows.
With Peterson gone, the Vikings run game might actually be more dynamic. Though he was limited to two carries, Latavius Murray is a sure-bet in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. Jerick McKinnon is a solid do-it-all threat and Cook’s versatility as a rusher takes this unit to another level.
The 5-foot-11 back showed he’s powerful enough to run inside and bust through tackles and has the speed to be a dominant outside rusher. Running parallel to the sideline happened to be one of his best attributes in the season-opening win. He totaled 85 yards on nine rushes outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats Info.
But it’s inside those tackles where he impressed most.
“The thing I appreciate the most about him is his yards after contact,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “When he gets hit at eight and it’s second-and-5, he falls for three (yards), keeps his feet moving, he drives. He’s a tough, tough back. He’s a tough competitor.”
Zimmer classified the performances of Cook, quarterback Sam Bradford and Minnesota’s offensive line with the same adjective: outstanding.
The Vikings had all of one 100-yard rushing game last season. It was a point of emphasis for the offensive line for the team to reach that mark in Week 1.
Minnesota achieved that feat as Cook got going down the stretch. The rookie opened up the fourth quarter with a 32-yard run that set up Kyle Rudolph‘s 15-yard touchdown three plays later. Cook closed out the game with his longest run, a 33-yard rush that allowed Minnesota to kneel out the clock.
“We wanted to get 100 yards rushing and close the game out,” rookie center Pat Elflein said. “That was a pride thing.”
The offensive line was a nightmare in 2016, so in the offseason, Minnesota began to rebuild by acquiring a new set of tackles.
It parted ways with guard Alex Boone on Sept. 2 because it wanted to fortify a group that would be able to run its zone blocking scheme. The Vikings made it a focal point to improve the league’s 32nd rushing attack but also help balance the offense, giving Braford more time to open up the passing game.
The quarterback was hit all of two times on Monday and only sacked once. His 27-of-32 performance for 346 yards and three touchdowns was surgeon-like, stringing explosive plays together to move the offense efficiently.
Most of all he looked comfortable, a direct reflection of the five blocking in front of him.
“Our guys up front played great,” Bradford said. “They really kept me clean all night long. They gave me plenty of time to really sit back there and evaluate things and find the open receiver, and then they did a great job in the run game.
“When I’ve got time to sit back there and evaluate things, I’ve got all the confidence in the world that our guys outside are going to win.”