A year ago, Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon was the team’s second leading rusher with 538 yards and he led the team with an average of 4.8 yards per carry. He actually would have likely led the team in rushing, since he took over the starting role, if he was not placed on injured reserve towards the end of the season with a back injury.
McKinnon’s playing time was expected to decrease this season with Adrian Peterson returning to the lineup, but how much it decreased may have been a bit of a surprise. Last week, McKinnon received 15 offensive snaps against the Detroit Lions and that has been his season high. He had only received 10 or more snaps in a game one other time and that came in the team’s Week 3 win over the San Diego Chargers.
When asked about McKinnon’s playing time, head coach Mike Zimmer said that it just depends on that week’s opponent.
“We kind of get a rotation, get a feel for who we’re playing and what we’re going to emphasize in that game,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “We thought Jerick would be good with the opportunities that he had. He missed the last six games or whatever it was last year with injury and people kind of forget what he did for us last year through the first three quarters of the season. He’s a talented guy and he always surprises me with his strength, because he’s got that low center of gravity.”
When people see McKinnon come in at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds and play with the type of elusiveness and speed that he does, they often forget how strong he actually is. And he was able to show off that strength last week against the Lions.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lined up under center with McKinnon in the backfield. There was a quick pitch to him as he moved to his left and two Lions defenders met him at the line of scrimmage, almost immediately. But he was then able to lower his shoulder, break some tackles and go for 9 yards. He probably could have even run for more but he was held up by his own teammate, which allowed the defenders to catch up to him.
“A lot of people look at my size and stature and think I’m just a shifty guy or a scat-back type of guy,” McKinnon said. “Just trying to show I can add that downhill power game to my game as well. I mean, just being out there you see all the guys in the huddle and you know everybody’s got the same goal to try and get down there and score, so whenever you can make a contribution you’re trying to do the most you can for your team and teammates.”
The second-year running back prides himself on being a team-first player and that is a big reason why he has been OK with his limited snap counts. In his eyes, all that matters is that the team comes away with a victory, although he would still like to be able to get his first NFL touchdown.
Last year the story always seemed to be McKinnon running down the field and then getting taken out near the goal line in favor of Matt Asiata. That scenario appeared to arise again last week when McKinnon was on the field for a drive all the way down to the 2-yard line, but he was then taken out and replaced by Peterson.
“A little bit (frustrating), just because I want to score my first touchdown, but I mean you’ve got to take the coaching and do your job,” he said. “Coach don’t see me as a goal-line runner, so obviously when we’re in those situations I come out, but there’s nothing against it.”
McKinnon knows all he can do is focus on his own game. That’s why he stays late after practices every day and gets extra work in with the Vikings running back coach Kirby Wilson. The two primarily work on pass blocking because McKinnon wants to be solid in that regards and doesn’t want Bridgewater to get sacked because of him.
He knows that he messed up a couple times during the preseason but feels that he has been good so far in the regular season when he has been asked to pass protect.
“I’ve been pretty solid during the season when I do get a chance to pick up blitzes,” McKinnon said. “Preseason I was a little over aggressive on two of them and I just got to be disciplined and stick to what Coach Kirby has taught me. And that’s just what that is after (practice), just get extra work, making sure my mind is in the right place, making sure I don’t get too aggressive or kind of overset my blitz pickup and get beat inside and stuff like that. Just pounding away at the small things. Working on my craft every day and just keep getting better.”
It is hard to tell what kind of role McKinnon is going to have from week to week since everything varies on the opponent the Vikings are facing. But with Peterson sitting out of practice both Wednesday and Thursday with injuries to his hip, finger and ankle, McKinnon could be called upon to have an increased role.