The game balls offered up in the Minnesota Vikings’ tight end room only reinforced the notion of the improved play – and usage – from the tight ends this year.
Front and center is Kyle Rudolph, whose receiving numbers – 36 receptions for 431 yards – are in the middle of the NFL’s tight end pack. But every tight end on the roster knows where the Vikings’ offensive bread is buttered.
“We know at times that’s what this team does. We want to run the ball,” lead blocking tight end Rhett Ellison said. “With Adrian Peterson, it’s pretty obvious. (Rudolph) is understanding that more, and we all are every week. We’re seeing it work. The more it works, the more you believe in it. I don’t know if he’s doing anything extra, he’s always working hard. It’s obviously translating on the field.”
In two of the last three games, Peterson exploded through the line of scrimmage for game-winning touchdown runs of 35 yards (last week against the Atlanta Falcons) and 80 yards (on Nov. 15 against the Oakland Raiders). In both cases, all three tight ends were in the game and lined up on the same side of the formation, where Peterson made his game-clinching cut.
“I think the blocking is the thing that’s been emphasized all year and it’s starting to come around,” Rudolph said. “I think all three guys in our room played a big role in not only the way that we ran the ball in Oakland, but also the way we ran the ball in Atlanta. … We know that’s our identity. I would have agreed that the Oakland game was one of my best games if I don’t drop the easiest touchdown of my life.”
And yet, that was the contest that elicited the game-ball distribution in the tight end meeting room.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is known for his power running attack and vertical passing game, but this year he has often used three tight ends in the game to help support the running game.
“It’s our style. It fits our style and the way we like to play,” Rudolph said. “(Turner) is a great offensive mind and been around the game for a long time. Yeah, it might not be the way the way he used to do things. Our offense might not be like the days of old with Norv’s system, but he’s a great offensive mind and we have a bunch of other great offensive coaches on that staff that come up with creative ways to put us in the best situation.”
For the past few offseasons, the perennial storyline advanced has been that it could be a breakout year for Rudolph in the passing game. That might have been the case again this year, except that the offensive line was hit with injuries to starters John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. At times, that has meant more need for Rudolph to stay in and help block.
He’s taken that task to heart with an increased emphasis in the running game. But Turner has also called for passing plays three times more with three tight ends in the game than he did in his last two years in San Diego, and in 2013 in Cleveland, according to STATS.
Still, Rudolph has taken to the task of blocking more because that is what is helping the Vikings win games. Controlling in the clock with the ground game and playing sound defense has led to an 8-3 record and the Vikings likely won’t deviate from that M.O. anytime soon.
“It’s what we need to win games. In the past, we could win games other ways and last year we threw the ball a little bit more than we are this year,” Rudolph said. “It was made very clear to me early in this year that in order for us to win games we’re going to need you to be important in the run game – you play an important part – and I take pride in that and it’s something I’ve worked hard with (position coach Kevin Stefanski) working on technique and becoming a capable run blocker.”
While Rudolph had some blocking responsibilities at Notre Dame, he admits it’s not the same as trying to block in the NFL, where the quality of opponent is obviously increased dramatically.
“The attitude in our room is we’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do to help our team win,” rookie tight end MyCole Pruitt said. “Kyle has definitely been the leader of that and taken on that role.”