For just the second season of his career, and the first as a lead contributor, Jerick McKinnon made it through 16 games without even being listed questionable once on the Vikings’ injury reports.
McKinnon dealt with his nicks, including an ankle injury in Week 4 and a recent shoulder injury he’s practiced and played through. But the Vikings’ spark plug out of the backfield still has the same boost, due in part to the types of touches McKinnon is getting this year and a slightly reduced workload.
“I think a little of both,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “Some of the ones he ends up bouncing to the perimeter a little bit more. You’re able to see some of that. He seems fresh.”
A “fresh” McKinnon is good for a Vikings team hopeful to make a playoff run, which could start and end inside U.S. Bank Stadium. While McKinnon had just one start in 2017, he led the backfield in snaps (46.4%) and yards from scrimmage (991) and perhaps benefitted from a workload that leaned Latavius Murray’s way (231 touches to McKinnon’s 201).
McKinnon revitalized the receiving back in Minnesota. His 51 receptions this season were the most by a Vikings back since Moe Williams in 2003. And much of that damage (42 catches for 370 yards) came during the Vikings’ 9-1 run in the middle of the season.
With just one catch for nine yards, he’s largely been shelved as a receiving option the last two games. Expect Case Keenum to find McKinnon (a pending free agent this spring) again when the playoffs come to Minnesota on Jan. 14.
Let's take a look at McKinnon’s recent play, which could help fuel a Vikings playoff run. Here to help is Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman.
They call Bears running back Tarik Cohen ‘Chicken Salad,’ because he can create with, uh, situations resembling chicken feces. McKinnon’s ‘Jet’ nickname doesn’t do him such justice for gaining five yards on this second-and-10 below during Sunday’s 23-10 win vs. the Bears. Playing behind the Vikings’ seventh different offensive line combination of the season, McKinnon reverses field and accelerates past the backside defender to gain the edge.
“Good peripheral vision and feel to sense the backside guard (Sirles) is unable to execute the cutoff and the interior lane is unavailable,” Hatman said. “From there, it is a prime example of McKinnon’s open field skills and ability to elude defenders and pick up yards.”
He’s setting up linebackers, which is turning creases into holes for the Vikings offense. Watch McKinnon hesitate briefly on this 9-yard gain in Green Bay, where leading tackler Blake Martinez (#50) leap out of the hole trying to track the 5-foot-9 back.
“Great combo blocks set up on the DTs,” Hatman said. “McKinnon's path seems to indicate a mid-zone play, which gets the LB (50) to fall backside, giving the right tackle a great chance to pick him up. McKinnon sees the linebacker and jumps back behind his blockers. Good work.”
McKinnon again turned a bad situation into a gain by finding room on the back side of a play, this time for 14 yards on Sunday against the Bears. The Vikings are going to need more consistent run blocking in the playoffs, which should be expected with the return of center Pat Elflein to the lineup. But even when tight end David Morgan, an otherwise stout run blocker, slips up, McKinnon is looking “fresh” indeed.
“Disciplined to press his key and stay playside until the tight end loses his block, then he quickly is able to see a backside lane open up,” Hatman said. “Great daylight created there by the left tackle, pinning the edge defender out.”
The Vikings’ screen game has been dormant for McKinnon, which makes it seem ripe to resurface in the postseason. Running back screens have been largely a nonfactor in three of the last four games. It’s no coincidence Elflein, the most mobile interior Vikings offensive lineman by a mile, was held out of two of those games due to a shoulder injury. His expected return should help Pat Shurmur make those calls, which have produced at least 10 gains of 10 or more yards and a touchdown this season for Minnesota. McKinnon has four of the 10-plus screens and the touchdown (a 27-yarder vs. Green Bay).
Below is McKinnon’s last successful screen: a 31-yard catch and run in Detroit. He’s had three screens called in five games since, catching two for a loss of three yards.
“The execution of this screen is beautiful,” Hatman said. “Great run action, the offensive line slides out well. McKinnon does a good job of gaining width to stay away from the defensive linemen in pursuit and then his athletic ability is on display again.”