MINNEAPOLIS — We're halfway through the Minnesota Vikings' season, and what have we learned?
Well, Dalvin Cook is good. Real good.
There will always be a debate about whether money should be spent on running backs in today's NFL, but Cook is well on his way for earning every penny of his five-year, $63 million contract extension he signed before the season.
Cook has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sluggish 3-5 start to the season for the Vikings. Cook has accounted for more than a third of the Vikings' total offense—858 yards rushing and 173 yards receiving—and 13 total touchdowns. And this is with him missing 1½ games with a groin injury.
"Dalvin's a great player ... He runs extremely hard, he's physical, he's hard to take down, he's got great acceleration." said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer after the Vikings' 34-20 win over the Detroit Loins on Sunday.
It's no surprise the offense runs through Dalvin. In the Vikings' three wins this season, Cook amassed 499 rushing yards, 125 yards receiving and eight total touchdowns.
"You give him a crease, and he can do something special with it," said Vikings guard Brian Dozer. "He puts on a display each week."
Minnesota entered its bye week 1-5, but has since strung together a pair of wins to keep its postseason hopes alive. The NFL expanded its playoff this season to include three wild-card teams, which could be one of the best ways for the Vikings to sneak in after a slow start out of the blocks.
Another surprise on the offensive side of the ball has been rookie receiver Justin Jefferson. The 21-year-old pass-catcher out of LSU leads the team with 627 yards receiving on 34 catches and has been a nice addition to a passing attack that lost Stefon Diggs in the offseason.
Diggs was traded to the Buffalo Bills back in March, so when the Vikings selected Jefferson with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft it didn't come as much of a surprise. However, his impact so early in his career may have been somewhat unexpected, especially considering the lack of production the Vikings got from their previous first-round selection Laquon Treadwell. In four seasons with Minnesota, Treadwell caught just 65 passes for 701 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jefferson, who already has more touchdowns, has a chance to surpass Treadwell's yardage in just nine games.
"Week 1, I wasn't really too sure of the NFL, or how fast it was or anything," Jefferson said in a press conference earlier this season. "Now, I have a couple games under my belt, so I have a feel for the NFL. I know what's going on, I know the tempo of it."
Jefferson has even caught the attention of rival head coaches.
"He's really come a long way," said Packers head coach Matt LeFleur. "This guy is gonna be a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the league, if he isn't already. He's explosive. You can tell he's a smart football player."
Jefferson's explosiveness has forced defenses to key in on him more, thus allowing Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen the opportunity to make more plays. Thielen leads the team with 37 catches and seven touchdown receptions.
While the offense has shown plenty of upside through the first half of the season, the defense has had its struggles.
Since taking over as the Vikings' head coach, Zimmer -- a defensive-minded coach -- transformed Minnesota's defense into a perennial top-10 unit. But this year, with a core of young players, the Vikings' defense ranks 29th in the league in yards allowed.
Partly due to some season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl-caliber players -- Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter -- Minnesota's defense has struggled to keep opposing offenses in check. In a game against Seattle, Minnesota, leading 26-21, allowed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to engineer a 13-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that handed the Vikings a 27-26 loss.
In previous years under Zimmer, this would be unheard of. Minnesota's defense would have, more times than not, rose to the challenge and gotten off the field with the lead, and ultimately the win.
But this year, featuring a secondary riddled with inexperience, opposing quarterbacks have torched to Vikings through the air. Minnesota has the third-worst pass defense in the league, allowing 287.9 passing yards per game. Only Atlanta and Seattle have worse pass defenses.
But with inexperience, comes growth. And Zimmer said he's starting to see that growth with his young secondary.
"Obviously, it took a little longer than we we had anticipated, but they're starting to get with a lot better, now," Zimmer said.
The Vikings have a key division rival matchup Monday night against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Bears are 5-4 and have have lost three straight, so while the Vikings are trending upward, Chicago has taken a turn for the worse.
If Minnesota wants to continue its bid to be a potential playoff team, notching a win in the Windy City is almost certainly a must. The Vikings have a tough second half of their schedule with games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints, so racking up some wins before those matchups could go a long way in their bid for a postseason berth.