McKinnon should ‘raise his expectation level’

Jerick McKinnon didn’t know how Sunday’s game would develop, but he can be part of a two-headed solution to replacing Adrian Peterson with raised expectations.

Much has been made of the debut of Teddy Bridgewater’s spectacular debut, but another player looking to put together a sequel to his breakout first game in the spotlight is running back Jerick McKinnon.

Entering last Sunday’s game, McKinnon had rushed just five times for 7 yards. He burst onto the scene with 18 carries for 135 yards to help spark the Vikings rushing attack. As much as his big performance helped ignite the Vikings ground game, what do you do for an encore?

As shocked as many outsiders were to McKinnon’s breakout game, perhaps nobody was as pleasantly surprised as McKinnon himself.

“I really wasn’t sure how many plays I was going to get or how many touches,” McKinnon said. “Over the course of the game, that’s how things worked out. I’m thankful that I got the opportunity and just tried to make the most out of it.”

When the Vikings lost Adrian Peterson from the active roster, many believed the Vikings offense would sputter to a crawl. In the first two games without A.P., the ground game did little to sway that opinion. Matt Asiata was bottled up and McKinnon’s role was minimal. But, against Atlanta, that all changed.

McKinnon and Asiata combined to carry the ball 38 times and showed the Vikings could be a dominant rushing team even without Peterson. The emergence of McKinnon gives the Vikings a dual threat in the mold of “thunder and lightning” backfields that have been a part of the NFL for years.

McKinnon said he never imagined he would get 135 rushing on Sunday, but head coach Mike Zimmer indicated after the game that McKinnon might be selling himself short.

“He needs to raise his expectation levels if that’s what he thinks, so I’ll have to talk to him about that,” Zimmer said. “Jerick, he’s a lot like Teddy (Bridgewater) in a lot of ways. He doesn’t get too high and things don’t bother him so he just needs to continue to stay with it and he’s got a chance to be a good back.”

Asked if he envisions that the Vikings could become a two-headed backfield with both he and Asiata being equal components to the running game, McKinnon wasn’t shy about his assessment.

“Most definitely,” he said. “Matt does a lot of good things. There is a lot that I’ve picked up from him and learned from the things he does well. I’ve picked up a lot of things from him and I think there’s a good chance we could both be used to help pick up the offense.”

The Vikings offense suffered a blow when it lost its centerpiece. As critics would quick to point out, no one player could replace Peterson in the offense. That statement was true. No one player could, but perhaps two could get the job done.

“Being a defensive coach, when you have two different types of backs come in there, it changes your mindset on some of your calls and also the players, they have to think a little bit differently,” Zimmer said. “It’s not necessarily different plays all of the time – it’s one guy can get to the perimeter faster, one guy can be a little bit more physical. I hope that we continue to grow his role, but I don’t think he is going to be an every down back, right now.”

As the Vikings put the final touches on their short week of practice heading into the crucial NFC North matchup with the Packers, they do so without Peterson, without their starting quarterback to open the season (Matt Cassel) and potentially without Bridgewater. They’ve worn out the “next man up” motto because they’ve had to employ a lot of “next men” in their plans. McKinnon is one of those players.

If nothing else, McKinnon’s splashy debut as a featured player has given the Packers defensive coaching staff someone else to think about and game plan for. A week ago, they may have been aware of McKinnon. A week later, he is a source of concern. He’s quick to admit that Peterson is hard to replace, but the show must go on and he’s ready to do his part to make sure the show is good.

“You can’t replace someone like Adrian,” McKinnon said. “The best you can do is do your best to make a difference and make plays when you get the opportunity. Matt has done a great job and I hope I can continue to contribute myself. I’m not sure how much I’ll be asked to do or how many touches I’ll get, but I’m ready to do whatever is asked of me to help us win.”

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