Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season has finally arrived, and the San Francisco 49ers
face a major test right out of the gate, as they head to Minnesota to take on the Vikings and their ultra-potent defense. Sunday's game also marks Dalvin Cook’s first regular-season appearance since he suffered a torn ACL as a rookie vs. the Lions.
Even without Cook in the fold, the Vikings offense carried on in 2017 with Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Latavius Murray, and a very familiar running back in Jerick McKinnon. Their defense is also loaded with stars like Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, who collectively led the Vikings to within one game of a Super Bowl appearance.
Not only will the 49ers have to move the ball and score against a great defense, but with Cook back, they’ll have to stop one of the league's most promising young running backs. Let’s look at what Cook brings to the table for the Vikings.
On this run, Cook took the handoff and displayed his amazing lateral movement with a quick cut to the right. He caps the run with a broken tackle before being brought down at the 1-yard line. He turned a gain of only a few yards into a 26-yard run that was inches away from being a touchdown. As great as the play turned out to be, it could have been prevented.
Keep an eye on the Steelers’ LB Vince Williams (#98). His responsibility on that play was to contain the outside, but he took himself out of it by running upfield, leaving the cutback lane open. Joe Haden (who wore #21 last year) also had an opportunity to stop the cutback, but was blocked and sealed off by tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82).
Once Cook gets himself in short yardage situations near the goal line, it’s difficult to stop him from getting into the end zone.
In this clip, the Vikings brought out the heavy personnel, which usually indicates a run up the middle. To prevent the offense from scoring, the Bucs defensive line bunched up and attempted to create a pile at the line of scrimmage. The outside linebackers were tasked with containing the edges and preventing the running back from bouncing the play to the outside.
At the beginning of the play, notice that the Bucs defensive line was successful in creating traffic up the middle, but Cook is the rare kind of running back that isn’t afraid to put his head down and create his own hole if one isn’t there. After the handoff, Cook found a crease and jumped over the pile for a touchdown.
Now, even if the 49ers get to Cook early, they must gang tackle to effectively bring him down.
In this clip, the Vikings call an inside run to the right. Cook broke through the line and was met by Buccaneers defensive end William Gholston (#92). He kept his legs moving and broke a tackle. Cook also made safety Chris Conte (#23) miss on a tackle by quickly cutting to the left. He capped off the run by dragging T.J. Ward (#43) for almost 10 yards on his way to a 26- yard gain. The big play began with the two Bucs linebackers taking themselves out of the play, which allowed Cook to get to the second level of the defense.
The 49ers cannot afford to give up big runs like these against the Vikings. The defensive line must stay disciplined and plug up as many gaps as possible while the athletic 49ers linebackers swarm the running back and get him down to the ground.
As strong as he is, Cook has the home run potential that not many other running backs have. But he is not without weaknesses. In his college career with Florida State, Cook was known to have a fumbling issue, but it has not passed over into his NFL career. His only career fumble so far was on the play where he tore his ACL.
Regardless, the 49ers need to make attempts at stripping the ball out of Cook’s hands and creating turnovers to give the offense an opportunity to put the game away early.
Cook also has issues in pass protection.
On this play in pass protection, he steps up to block the linebacker, Williams, but misses. The blown assignment allows Williams a free shot at quarterback Case Keenum, who brings him down for a 10-yard sack. If the 49ers can disguise their blitzes, it can confuse Cook long enough for a defender to break through and sack the quarterback.
To neutralize Cook, the 49ers as a unit must aggressively swarm to the ball on defense, and attempt to exploit the few weaknesses he possesses. If they can manage to do that, the Vikings offense will naturally struggle to stay balanced, possibly leading to more opportunities for turnovers and a better chance for the 49ers to come away with a win to start the season.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images, NFL