Second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. is coming off a career-high 64 receiving yards during Sunday’s loss in Seattle, and quarterback Kirk Cousins wants to see Smith’s role continue to grow as the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game against a Falcons defense that has surrendered an NFL-worst seven touchdowns to tight ends.
“We love what he brings to the table and love giving him more opportunities like we did last week,” Cousins said. “Hopefully we can keep that going. We expect him to keep putting impressive plays on tape when the ball comes his way. He’s wired to be a great player.”
The Vikings could be without running back Dalvin Cook against Atlanta because of a groin injury, making Smith’s rebound from a quiet start timely. He hadn’t caught a pass since Week 2 and drew three flags in losses to the Colts and Titans.
Smith was a bigger part of the coaching staff’s game plan against the Seahawks. He was targeted on the offense’s first two plays and finished with four catches for 64 yards in a season-high 68% playing time.
The Vikings leaned on tight end-heavy formations, and Smith gave the team’s brass a flash of what they envisioned when drafting him out of Alabama in 2019’s second round.
Cousins was impressed with Smith’s overall game Sunday, but the initial 23-yard catch — a diving effort while outrunning Seahawks cornerback Ryan Neal to the sideline — stood out.
“That was an outstanding play by Irv. Very impressive,” Cousins said. “He did an awesome job, also, in the running game, blocking. He was very physical, very athletic, and he made a couple other big plays in the pass game.”
Cook, three others sidelined
Cook was one of four Vikings players on the active roster unable to practice Wednesday, the team’s first session of the week, which was moved to the indoor fieldhouse at TCO Performance Center in Eagan.
Cook (groin), who considered himself “day to day,” was joined by cornerback Holton Hill (foot), defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (back) and receiver K.J. Osborn (hamstring) on the sideline. Cornerback Kris Boyd, who has been out since playing through a hamstring injury Sept. 27 vs. Tennessee, was listed as a limited participant. Two players on injured reserve, right guard Pat Elflein (thumb) and linebacker Troy Dye (ankle), rehabbed with trainers.
For the Falcons, receiver Julio Jones (hamstring), safety Jaylinn Hawkins (concussion) and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat (rest) did not practice. Jones, the 10th-year All-Pro receiver, has played just 15 snaps for Atlanta since aggravating a hamstring injury in Week 2.
Hunter ‘mulling his options’
Defensive end Danielle Hunter has not been seen on the Vikings’ practice fields rehabilitating his neck injury since he left for New York earlier this month to seek a second opinion from medical professionals.
Hunter is reportedly dealing with a herniated disc in his neck, which can lead to radiating pain, numbness and weakness, and has kept him off the field since Aug. 14.
Hunter, who turns 26 this month, has been on injured reserve since Week 1. He’s already missed three games, so by NFL rules the Vikings can bring him back when he’s healthy, but there’s no indication that is expected to happen anytime soon.
“[He’s] still kind of mulling his options, I think,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Timing and trust
Receiver Justin Jefferson has caught attention for his big plays this year, but he showed off a flash of his LSU days, when he was largely a slot receiver, on a shifty fourth-down route in Seattle.
As the slot receiver, Jefferson ran an “out-and-in” route, starting outside, before stopping and cutting back inside with Cousins’ release almost in sync. The fourth-down connection moved the chains on the opening touchdown drive.
“We just really called a little out-and-in route,” Jefferson said. “It worked good, especially vs. man [coverage]. It was fourth-and-3 or something like that and it was a 5-yard route. It was Kirk trusting me to run it and get open and get the first down.”