The Vikings ran 62 offensive plays. Dalvin Cook was the focal point 27 times.
That’s 43.5%. And that wasn’t enough of a commitment to the team’s best offensive player.
Not on Sunday. The Vikings blew a 12-point lead around a critical three-and-out in which Cook never left the sideline as Tennessee turned a 24-12 deficit into a 25-24 lead en route to a 31-30 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We have our substitutions and rotations with those guys,” said coach Mike Zimmer, referring to Cook and backup Alexander Mattison. “We’ve been doing it like that all year.”
All year is now an 0-3 start.
Cook had a great game after his third carry resulted in a fumble that handed Tennessee a 31-yard field goal and a 6-0 lead. He had 199 yards from scrimmage, including a career-high 181 yards rushing on 22 carries (8.2). He had two runs of 39 yards — one of them a touchdown — and runs of 12 and 13 yards.
He’s also a big reason rookie Justin Jefferson had a breakout game with seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown.
“It helps a lot,” Jefferson said. “As long as everybody is doing their part and making those big plays, this team is looking good.”
But Cook was on the sideline at the 3:53 mark of the third quarter.
The Titans had just put together an eight-play touchdown drive that took over four minutes. So Cook would have been well-rested when Tennessee cut the lead to 24-19.
Mattison trotted in. He’s a good backup making $675,000. Very good. But there’s a reason the Vikings built their offense around Cook and then gave him a five-year, $63 million extension with $28.2 million guaranteed.
Zimmer and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak should rethink any rotation that takes a well-rested Cook off the field in a tight game in the second half. At least until the Vikings are officially eliminated from the playoff picture.
On that three-and-out, Cousins was pressured on first down. Again. He threw the ball away.
On second down, Mattison got stuffed for no gain. On third-and-10, Cousins threw short to Chad Beebe, who gained only 7 yards.
Cousins was asked what he thinks about a rotation that takes Cook off the field in that situation. He threw the question into the first row.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have so many other thoughts going through my head in those moments. I certainly believe in what Dalvin can do, what Alex can do, what Ameer can do, what Mike Boone can do and what C.J. Ham can do. We have a lot of running backs who can really contribute to this offense.”
But only one who can carry it.
Tennessee took advantage of the three-and-out with a three-play, 65-yard touchdown drive and a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
And here’s what Cook did on the ensuing 75-yard touchdown drive: Five touches for 31 yards, including an explosive 10-yard blast up the middle on third-and-3. Kyle Rudolph’s 3-yard touchdown grab gave the Vikings a 30-25 lead with 10:17 left.
Two plays after a Titans field goal made it a two-point game, Cook went up the middle for 7 yards on second-and-3. Kubiak called another run for Cook with the clock ticking down to the 5:15 mark.
The idea was to grind the clock with the team’s best player. But second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. made yet another penalty blunder with an illegal block in the back.
The Vikings never recovered from first-and-20, punted the ball away and watched as Tennessee drove for the winning 55-yard field goal with 1:44 left.
Cousins and the offense botched the last drive in chaotic fashion, finishing their day with Cousins’ sixth interception of the season.
Zimmer called the possession “a disaster.” And it was. But who knows what the situation would have been at that point had the Titans not been able to sandwich third-quarter touchdowns around a three-and-out that took only 1:14 off the clock as Cook just stood and watched.