With all the changes that injuries have caused to the Minnesota Vikings offense, one of the steadying influences has been veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph. He is second on the team with 14 receptions for 166 yards and two of the team’s three offensive touchdowns.
Extrapolated over a full season, those numbers would translate into 75 receptions for 885 yards and 11 touchdowns – all of which would shatter his personal career highs.
He has been a solid contributor on an offense that has been struggling to score points, especially early in games. Through three games, the Vikings have scored just one offensive touchdown (from Rudolph against the Packers) and have just two points in the first quarter – courtesy of an end zone sack by defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Rudolph believes the Vikings offense can contribute more than it has, but that needs to start with getting out of the gate fast, which has yet to happen this season. They haven’t made the critical mistakes to kill the team (no turnovers in three games from the offense), but there is a lot of improvement needed.
“It’s important for us to get off to a quicker start than we have in all three games,” Rudolph said. “You can make matters worse by turning the ball over. We’ve done a good job keeping our team in situations to keep us in games – not giving it away to the other team, pinning them deep because Jeff (Locke) has been punting the ball unbelievable and playing the field position game. We’ve been taking advantage of the opportunities.”
So far this season, the Vikings have been energized by their defense, which has been making plays and scoring points to help the effort, but Rudolph knows the offense can do a lot more than it has shown thus far. The Vikings have the worst run offense in the NFL, averaging just 51 yards a game.
But, a lot of that has to do with slow starts, which tend to snowball when things aren’t clicking early and defenses start getting in attack mode against them.
“We’re making plays, but we have to start quicker,” Rudolph said. “As an offense, we need to make more plays and get more first downs. When we do that, we tend to string drives together and consistently score points. It’s hard when you’re not sustaining drives. It’s hard to protect. It’s hard to run the ball. It’s hard to do everything.”
The Vikings came into the offseason with big aspirations to make a deep playoff run this season and part of that goal was to improve the passing game and make the Vikings more of an aerial threat than they have been in the first two years in Norv Turner’s offense.
A big component of that is for Rudolph to be a consistent downfield weapon, a challenge he is more than ready for.
“We talked about all offseason and in training camp that, for this offense to take the next step, we have to make plays in the passing game and take advantage of all these big fronts we’re seeing,” Rudolph said. “If I can help our team by doing that and being one of those guys, I’d be happy to do it and would enjoy doing it.”
Much of the offseason and preseason preparation was predicated on Rudolph and the other receivers making the progression and improvement with Teddy Bridgewater. However, when his devastating knee injury took him out of the picture, the Vikings had to completely switch up their offense by trading for veteran Sam Bradford.
In many ways, the offense was starting from scratch with a new quarterback, but Rudolph has gone the extra mile to build a rapport with Bradford – translating work on the practice field into game-day success.
“It takes work,” Rudolph said. “We try to take advantage of special teams period, before practice, after practice – making sure we get as many extra reps on stuff we think we’ll see that week. We try to take advantage of any extra time we have throughout the day.”
Whether Rudolph can continue his strong start will be determined over the next three months, but he has come to realize that his role in the offense is more than just hauling in passes downfield. Especially without Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and Matt Kalil, the onus has been put on those remaining players to pick up the slack. Rudolph is prepared to take on whatever role is needed to help the team win, whether it means catching a bunch of passes or not.
“I’m understanding that there are more ways to help this team win than just catching balls,” Rudolph said. “Some games are going to happen like Sunday where I catch seven. Other games I may just catch two. But there are still 50 or 60 more plays where I can help our offense and help our team be successful.”