Latavius Murray’s first productive game as a Minnesota Viking will generate stories featuring the word redemption. Highlights of his best runs will display moves that caused defenders to flop to the ground as if shaken by an invisible Taser.
With the passing game in neutral and the opponent unable to score a touchdown until the final play of the game, what the Vikings needed on Sunday was a between-the-tackles workhorse, and Murray played the part, rushing 18 times for 113 yards and a touchdown in a 24-16 victory over the drooping Baltimore Ravens.
Don’t let the hero-worshipping distract you from a more relevant view of Murray’s performance, and the Vikings’ 2017 offense. The offensive line, weak as winter sunlight all of last year, has created room for all of the team’s backs this year. With Case Keenum looking alarmingly like Case Keenum on Sunday, the best development of the day for the Vikings was that they again were able to run the ball effectively.
Last year, only twice did a Vikings back rush for more than 60 yards. This season, they have had a back rush for at least 60 yards in all seven games, and have had four individual rushing totals of 90 yards or more.
That three different backs have rushed for 95 yards or more through seven games suggests that the Vikings’ rebuilt-yet-still-battered offensive line is responsible for the team’s improved running game, which has helped the Vikings to reach 5-2 and first place in the NFC North.
The plan this offseason was to improve the offense by creating a running game, hoping that would help slow pass rushers who had no reason to pay attention to Vikings backs last year. That it has worked is a credit to General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the linemen themselves.
The Vikings were able to score 24 points on Sunday without throwing the ball deep or well, and while missing Dalvin Cook and receiver Stefon Diggs, their two most dynamic skill-position players.
“It’s really a testament to our offense,” Zimmer said. “We’ve had Diggs out, [receiver Michael] Floyd out today. We didn’t have Cook, we don’t have the quarterback, we don’t have a couple of linemen today. We just keep on battling and fighting.”
Coming into the game, Murray had rushed 41 times for 97 yards and zero touchdowns in six games. He signed with the Vikings to be their lead back after Adrian Peterson departed, and he worked diligently to become the team’s third-most-effective back by the time the regular season began.
A slow-to-heal ankle injury and what Zimmer interpreted as a lack of urgency during training camp left Murray behind rookie phenom Cook and Jerick McKinnon until Sunday, when the running game operated the way the Vikings envisioned before they traded up to take Cook in the draft.
“The thing I liked about today was the physicality that he ran with,” Zimmer said. “He’s a slashing-style runner. Yards after contact were good today; made the safety miss on the touchdown run. It adds to our dimension on the offensive side with a guy like Jerick and a guy like him.”
The Vikings led 12-6 in the third quarter and had a first down at the Ravens 29. The play called for receiver Adam Thielen to line up off tackle, inside of tight end Kyle Rudolph and receiver Jarius Wright.
Rudolph shoved his man inside, Thielen blocked the safety and Murray burst through the hole, finding only strong safety Tony Jefferson between him and the goal line.
Murray dipped to the outside, then veered back inside. Jefferson flopped to the ground like a hooked walleye and Murray dived into the end zone with the only meaningful touchdown of the game.
“I said they’re going to talk about me if I let them tackle me, so I’ve got to score this touchdown,” Murray said.
We’ve been able to talk favorably about Vikings backs for seven straight weeks, and when that happens it’s not the backs who are doing the hard work.