Dalvin Cook

Bear PAWS: Containing Cook key against Vikings

USA Today

Bear PAWS: Containing Cook key against Vikings

Let’s be real, who doesn’t like getting “100” on a quiz or test, right?  Furthermore, I’ve yet to meet the person that would refuse to accept a freely-offered $100 bill.  Everybody loves a large stack of Benjamins! Speaking of stacking “hundreds” together, that’s exactly what Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings is doing this season. He is stringing together 100 yard-plus games one after another, leading the NFL in rushing as the fourth week commences.

Well, I’m going to keep it 100 (a colloquialism for keeping it real, or authentic), and use P.A.W.S. (Predictive Analysis With Stats) to illustrate how controlling the number 100 is key to winning on Sunday.

For those who are unaware, Dalvin Cook is the real deal and his skillset makes the Vikings’ offense formidable.  Last season, Minnesota averaged 93.3 rushing yards per game, while this year its risen to 193.7 yards per contest on the ground. That’s a one hundred yard increase due in large part to Cook’s versatile running acumen. Taking the last three games of 2018, along with this season’s first three matches, the Vikings have a 4-2 record when they reach or exceed 100 yards rushing against their opponents. 

This year, Cook has rattled off three straight 100 yard-plus games (111, 154, 110), and is the NFL front-runner in rushing yards (375) and yards per attempt (6.6). He’s also caught 90 percent of passes thrown his way, and accumulated four touchdowns on the year. Whew! Dalvin is definitely “Cook-ing” this season and the Vikings are certainly benefitting from his efforts.

Even Capt. Obvious realizes the vast majority of Minnesota’s offense flows through Cook. He dominates the landscape of their offensive output to such a degree, that his rushing total is 101 yards more than both starting wideouts have receiving yards… combined. Ridiculous! Viking receivers Adam Thielen (173) and Stefon Diggs (101) have a combined 274 receiving yards after the first three games played. 

Remember, Cook currently leads the league with 375 yards rushing this season. On top of that, his longest run from scrimmage this campaign is an impressive seventy-five yards. Whereas, Thielen’s longest catch (35 yards) and Diggs’s (45 yards) add up to eighty yards combined, just five yards more than what Cook gained individually on his best scamper of the season.

According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, Cook runs at a 3.18 efficiency rate. A runner’s efficiency is calculated by taking the total distance traveled on a rushing play per rushing yards gained. Basically, a low number means less time is wasted moving sideways, or running in an east/west manner. So, essentially, the stat highlights more effective north/south runners, who get positive yards more quickly than the next player. Saquon Barkley leads the NFL in this category, while Cook is tied for sixth with Ezekiel Elliott.

The point being, Cook is a decisive runner who hits the open hole quickly and heads upfield, as his explosive 75-yard run this year demonstrates.

Cook’s emergence this season has helped mask the struggles of starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. He is only completing a pedestrian 58.7  percent of his passes, while averaging 101.3 fewer pass yards per game than what he produced last year. Due to an inept passing attack, Cook faces more eight-men fronts from defenses attempting to stifle Minnesota’s running schemes; he’s encountered such defenses approximately 26.3 percent of the time in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats, good for ninth-most in the NFL.

Undoubtedly, Cook is a dangerous and explosive player; however, any offensive weapon can be neutralized with the right defense. Drafted by Minnesota in 2017, Cook and the Vikings are 7-2 when his combined totals (rushing and receiving yards) reach or exceed 100 yards.  Conversely, their record is 2-7-1 when his combined yardage is under 100 yards. Against the Bears, Cook and the Vikings are 0-2 and have been statistically dominated in the run game. In the two games versus Chicago, Cook ran for a total of 51 yards (2.5 YPC) with zero touchdowns and caught seven passes for only 19 yards. The Vikings as a team rushed for a total of 85 yards (2.9 YPC) against Chicago in 2018.

The Bears are stout against the run (currently fourth in the league) allowing only 206 yards (3.1 YPC) with zero touchdowns through three games. Chicago must remain true to their defensive identity if they are to have success Sunday against the NFL’s leading rusher. Knowing where Cook is lined up at all times will certainly go a long way in containing him and hindering the Vikings’ offense.

Minnesota rarely has Cook rush out of the shotgun formation, gaining only 21 yards in four attempts. Instead, the bulk of his carries originate from under center, where he’s had 53 rushes for 354 yards, including 13 first downs and four touchdowns. Chicago as a team has a missed tackle percentage of 10.2, which is tenth-best in the league. They will have to do better than even that respectable rate and make sure they don’t miss any tackling opportunities on Cook. Otherwise, this sizzling talent will roast the Bears on Sunday.  

The Bears will win if:

-They prevent Dalvin Cook from amassing 100 combined yards of offense (Chicago is 2-0 when Cook is under 100 yards combined)

-They force beleaguered QB Kirk Cousins to pass for scores (Cousins has three touchdowns to two touchdowns on the season)

-They limit the Vikings from scoring points in the 1st half (Vikings average 17.3 points in the 1st half, 4th-best in the NFL; only averaging 8.7 points in the 2nd half)

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Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Vikings

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Vikings

1. Stop Dalvin Cook, specifically on the left. 

More than half of Cook’s 57 runs have been to the left side of the offensive line, per PFF, with tackle Riley Reiff and guard Pat Elflein manning those spots next to rookie center Garrett Bradbury. Cook is averaging 8.1 yards per rush when he goes left, and a 75-yard run and three of his four touchdowns have gone that direction. That’s not to say Cook is ineffective when he runs to the other side, seeing as he’s still averaging 4.9 yards per carry when he goes right. 

But with Vikings right guard Josh Kline out Sunday with a concussion, the expectation here is offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will have a heavier lean toward runs to the left. This is an offense that likes to have Cook hit stretch runs toward the tackle and cut back toward the interior, where he’s been deadly (16 runs, 143 yards on carries over the left guard). 

Stopping Cook is absolutely critical for the Bears’ defensive success on Sunday, especially on early downs. Minnesota’s most common play on first or second down, no matter the distance, is a run to Cook; win on those downs and the Bears’ pass rush can get after a mistake-prone Kirk Cousins on third down. 

It’s worth noting that Akiem Hicks, who’s questionable with a knee injury, has primarily lined up over right guards/tackles this year. It’s been Eddie Goldman who’s primarily lined up on the left, so even if Hicks does play, it’ll be incumbent on Goldman — one of the league’s most underrated run-stuffers — to get off blocks and/or soak up double-teams and give Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith lanes to make plays on Cook. 

Of course, the Bears could always flip Hicks to match up against Elflein and Reiff, and their defensive line will be better with Hicks on the field. But if Goldman plays as well Sunday as he has over the last few years, the Bears should have a good chance of bottling up Cook — or forcing him to run behind a backup right guard. 

2. Keep the pocket clean for Mitch Trubisky. 

The 39 pressures totaled by Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are the league’s highest total for two teammates entering Week 3. Minnesota’s edge rushing duo converted five of those into sacks, too. 

So there’s a massive challenge looming for Bears tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie (Massie practiced every day this week after he was a late scratch in Washington with vertigo). Per PFF, Leno has so far been responsible for allowing eight pressures and Massie three, though Massie did miss Week 3. 

How longtime Vikings coach/defensive guru Mike Zimmer schemes things up to get after Trubisky on Sunday will be fascinating to see develop, especially given right guard Kyle Long’s struggles (13 pressures allowed, per PFF) and injury status. Long will be a gametime decision, coach Matt Nagy said, and if he can’t play veteran backup Ted Larsen will slide into the lineup. 

Will Zimmer try to create havoc by going after the interior of the Bears’ offensive line? Or will he rely on Hunter and Griffen to keep Trubisky from having clean pockets?

However Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards dial it up, the Bears’ offensive line and overall pass protection needs to be better than it has been this year. The worry here is less about Trubisky getting sacked a bunch of times; it’s more about Trubisky having the time to confidently go through his progressions and read the field. 

Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are two of the best in the NFL at baiting opposing quarterbacks, and it’ll be easier for that duo to bait Trubisky into a bad decision if the Bears’ quarterback is under pressure on a regular basis. 

3. Score on defense and/or create a short field. 

The expectation here is that Sunday’s game will be a tight, low-scoring, physical battle. It should be the kind of game that can swing on an ill-timed turnover — in this case, one a Bears player is able to take to the house, or one occurring deep in Vikings territory to give Trubisky and the offense a short field. 

The strength of both the Bears and Vikings is defense. Which defense not only makes the most plays, but makes the biggest play, could shift Sunday’s outcome to Chicago or Minnesota. 

Prediction: Vikings 16, Bears 15

The Bears have managed just 19 points in two games against non-Washington defenses. While the Vikings played poorly on the road at Green Bay in Week 2, they’ve looked better over the course of the season’s first three games in beating up on the Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders than the Bears have, even with Monday's 16-point win in Washington. 

Whether or not Hicks plays will have a major impact on Sunday’s game — even a less-than-100-percent Hicks should be able to beat up a banged-up right side of Minnesota’s offensive line, especially in passing situations to further make Cousins uncomfortable. 

But even with Hicks on the field, a question would linger: What, exactly, does the Bears’ offense do well? 

While the Vikings have an erratic quarterback of their own, they do have an offensive identity steeped in running the ball (even if they’re running it at an unsustainable rate early in the season). So at the end of Sunday’s game headlined by two physical, opportunistic defenses, the team that wins will be the one that comes to Soldier Field with some semblance of an identity on offense. 

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Can the Bears stop Dalvin Cook? Akiem Hicks' status may answer that question

Can the Bears stop Dalvin Cook? Akiem Hicks' status may answer that question

Through three games of the 2019 season, Dalvin Cook has been the best running back in the NFL. He leads the league with 375 yards and 6.6 yards per carry and rushed for at least 110 yards in each of the Minnesota Vikings’ first three games and has four rushing touchdowns. 

We can go on: Cook has generated 10 or more yards on 14 plays this year, including a 75-yard touchdown dash in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers. Only Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott has had more rushing plays of 10 or more yards than Cook’s nine. 

Cook has been involved, via a rushing attempt or target, on a shade under 40% of Minnesota’s offensive plays. The Vikings' most-used play on first and second down, and on third-and-short, is a run to Cook. 

So the Bears’ No. 1 task is clear for Sunday: Make sure Cook doesn’t wreck what’s shaped up to be a must-win game in the NFC North. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano pointed to Cook’s penchant for explosive plays as a reason why his defense has to be aware of the former second round pick every time he’s on the field. 

“You can (allow gains of) one (yard), two (yards), four, five, two, zero, 80,” Pagano said. “It’s doing your job down after down after down and staying disciplined that way. You can’t get away from that. You absolutely can’t get away from that because you don’t know — there’s 65, 66, 67 plays. I can’t tell you which one it’s going to be. 

“So you gotta do your job. You gotta be where you’re supposed to be, you gotta get lined up, you gotta communicate, you gotta play with great fundamentals and great technique every single time.”

The Bears’ run defense ranks fourth in the league in rushing yards per play allowed (3.07) and is fifth in rushing yards allowed per game (68.7), and proved to be excellent against the run in 2018. But Bilal Nichols, one of the team’s better run stuffers, is already out with a broken hand, and Akiem Hicks hasn’t practiced this week after suffering a knee injury Monday night against Washington. 

Hicks’ status will loom over Chicago this weekend, with coach Matt Nagy saying Thursday the Pro Bowl defensive lineman will be a gametime decision Sunday. If Hicks is able to play, the Bears’ front seven will have a dominant presence who notched five tackles for a loss the last time Minnesota came to Soldier Field. 
If not, the Vikings may feel better about their ability to run the ball against a good defensive line rotation of Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Williams and Abdullah Anderson. Good, but perhaps not great. 

“We schematically need to be solid and having Hicks out there certainly helps,” Nagy said. “Again, we’ll let these next couple days go by, we’ll see where he’s at and make a decision. They do a lot of good things in that run game. They’re hard to stop. But I think our guys will be looking forward to the challenge.”

The Vikings haven’t asked quarterback Kirk Cousins to do much this year. No quarterback who’s started all three of his team’s games has thrown fewer passes than Cousins’ 63 — which is 21 attempts behind the next-lowest total (belonging to San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo). While Cousins is averaging eight yards per attempt — good for 10th in the league — he generally hasn’t been very good, throwing two interceptions (including a downright horrendous one against Green Bay) with a passer rating of 86.9. 

The Bears have been through this before with Cousins and the Vikings. Cousins completed 63% of his passes and averaged just under five yards per attempt with three touchdowns and two interceptions against the 2018 Bears, all with Cook gaining just 51 yards on 20 carries in those two games. 

So it’s simple: Stop Cook, and the Bears will probably stop the Vikings’ offense. It just might be more difficult this time around.

Consider this an outline for what the Bears need to do from a production standpoint: Hold Cook to under four yards per carry, and keep the explosive plays to a minimum. Do that, and the Bears’ defense should have plenty of success on Sunday. 

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