By rattling off runs of 60 yards or more in three consecutive games, Vikings running back Michael Bennett accomplished something that Walter Payton, Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith never did.
In fact, when Bennett galloped 62 yards in the run that set up a game-clinching touchdown Sunday against Green Bay, he became the first running back in NFL history to string together a hat trick of consecutive games with runs of 60 yards or more.
Not surprisingly, Bennett became the first Vikings player this season to be named the NFC player of the week.
More important than the honors and accolades Bennett's streak has produced is the diversity his newfound success has added to the Vikings offense. Bennett has (dare we say) started to fill the void left by Robert Smith when he retired two years ago. More impressive is Bennett likely will rush for 1,000 yards this year, his second season in the league. Because of a variety of injuries, Smith didn't eclipse the 1,000-yard mark until his fifth season in the NFL.
The league is starting to recognize Bennett's rushing ability and his big-play potential. The Vikings first noticed that in their loss against Tampa Bay.
"Tampa Bay brought a safety down (in the box)," Bennett said. "Once we had the long run they had a lot of guys in the box. Then after that, everybody just started bringing down guys to try to contain the running game."
When defenses put eight players in the box — the area occupied by the linebackers and defensive line — that opens up the passing game. Likewise, when the running game struggles, the passing game struggles with it.
"Now that Mike is making big runs, we're getting more eight-man box, seven-man box (defensive lineups)," head coach Mike Tice said. "So we have three wides and we're able to throw the ball downfield more."
Randy's block ratio
Bennett's long runs are not simply a result of his sprinter-like speed. The offensive line has been consistent opening holes all season, but so, too, have the receivers.
In Bennett's 78-yard run against the New York Giants earlier this month, wide receiver Randy Moss made a key open-field block that made Bennett's touchdown a cinch. "Randy Moss set the block to spring me on that one," Bennett said. "Everybody is playing their role and doing a great job of that. Randy Moss, D'Wayne Bates, Derrick Alexander when he was in, and Kelly Campbell — the wide receivers are doing a great job."
Tice has noticed that, too.
"That's a tribute to the offensive line, the tight ends and the wide receivers, who have been blocking extremely well this whole season," he said. "It's one of the things that goes unnoticed when you are losing."
What hasn't gone unnoticed is Bennett's confidence. Unlike the stock market, Bennett's confidence has been doing nothing but rising since the season began.
In fact, a play forgotten by now by most Vikings fans could have served as the booster to Bennett's success this season. In the fourth quarter against Detroit at the Metrodome on Oct. 13, quarterback Daunte Culpepper lobbed a screen pass to Bennett. Forty-five yards later Bennett was celebrating a game-tying touchdown and his first long play of the season.
Bennett has been running strong ever since.
"I think so," Bennett said. "It gave me a chance to get out in the open field and run a little bit. I felt like I was going to tear some muscles because I was so excited with that being my first long run of the year. It's just been coming natural now."
"I think the explosive runs have come more and more as Mike starts to feel confident and the game starts moving a little bit slower for him," Tice said. "I think one of the big stepping stones was the screen against Detroit. He was able to open up to that gear none of us have, we can only dream about having. From that point on, he has been very explosive."
Bennett's Big Bonanza
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