Q&A: With RBs Coach Dean Dalton

Running backs coach Dean Dalton talks about the subtle points in Michael Bennett's game that have really helped the running back become a more complete player in his second season. (The first of a two-part interview with Dalton.)

After being Mike Tice's assistant offensive line coach last year, Dean Dalton was quickly moved to running backs coach after Tice was named head coach in January. He has been a factor in Michael Bennett's first 1,000-yard season. Previously, Dalton worked with former head coach Dennis Green's son, Jeremy, at War Room publications, which evaluates football player personnel.

Dalton became a Vikings assistant in 1999 after four years at the War Room. Dalton was also dean of students and athletic director at Delevan-Darien School District in Delevan, Wis., for two years before going to the War Room. Previously, he worked in other capacities in high school athletics and in sports broadcasting and publishing. Collegiately, he has coached at Western Illinois (1984-85), Wisconsin (1986-87), Texas Southern (1988-89) and Purdue (1990).

Q: Michael Bennett has emerged as one of the NFC's leading rushers this season. Was there a certain point when you felt he took his game to the level we are seeing now?

A: Different facets of his game have shown dramatic improvement at different stages throughout the season. Some of the obvious ones were his cuts and attacking the secondary — how to attack and defeat a safety. That was really first evident on the cut he made against Tampa Bay. (Bennett had an 85-yard touchdown run against the Buccaneers on Oct. 3.) When I saw him get to the linebacker I said into the headphones to the guys on the sidelines, ‘He's gone.' He had shown it all year, his improvement in the offseason, he understood it. I saw him make this subtle step toward the safety, not away from the safety. That caused the safety's hips to sink, and Michael used his great speed to accelerate away, because no one has the reaction time to catch him if he gets them to change their direction.

That was a subtle thing we had been working on for a while. When he got that, it just snapped. That has allowed him — with the addition of the great effort on downfield blocking by the tight ends and the receivers — to really become a dynamic, explosive threat that defenses are concerned with. Of course, he had several games with big plays.

Now the subtle things otherwise that have shown up are his hands and his angles in his pass protection, and the physical toughness that he has shown in his pass protection has come light years this year. His ability to identify the defense, understand his responsibilities within our schemes and execute, all those things have been dramatic improvements. He has improved catching the football. He is continuing to improve his route running — that's an area he is working on and will continue to work on until he can get that to the level the rest of his game is at. But every phase of his game has continued to improve. With his understanding of everything he has gained knowledge, and that has allowed him to just play with real confidence. That confidence is evident. Each week he goes out he is much more confident than the week before.

I felt bad for Michael the way things ended up for us (against Green Bay on Dec. 8, a 26-22 loss at Lambeau Field). That was a big game for him on a personal level (he is from Milwaukee). He played exceptionally well, he gave us an opportunity to win the game and, in fact, I would have loved for that to have been a great homecoming.

Q: So really it comes down to confidence and recognition on Bennett's part?

A: Without a doubt. Obviously, he has been blessed with great physical talent and utilized those physical talents in his one season playing at the University of Wisconsin. But he wasn't challenged to the other facets of the game. He wasn't involved very much in protection; he wasn't involved very much in the passing game. He had four catches in his career and nothing down the field. So those are things that are brand new to him. In the last year, he was learning everything. This year where he has improved, and it has helped his confidence, is his consistency.

He has great footwork, he is technically really sound in the running game, and it causes linebackers trouble because with his great speed on the outside they tend to overplay it. With his current footwork, a linebacker can't tell on the first two steps that Michael Bennett takes if he is going outside or he is coming back down inside. That gives him and our offense an advantage, and that's one thing that has been very evident in his game. That puts pressure on the defense. You can't read on his steps, his footwork, what play we are going to run until the third step.

Q: How much has Bennett been able to slow down or be patient at the start of a play to see it developing and find an opening?

A: That has been another thing that has been continually modified throughout the season. His alignment and being able to hide his alignment from the defense, so they cannot identify the play call by where he lines up. We have tried to become consistent in his alignment, and that allows him the ability to have patience in the running game and yet not be out of position for his protection responsibilities in the passing game.

With that being said, we do move him around a little bit in the backfield. But we are working hard to be consistent, so the defense can't be tipped off by where he lines up as to what we are going to run. He has done a great job of that. The patience factor is his maturing and understanding that it helps the timing of an offensive scheme, the offensive play, if he can be patient. That allows his blockers to get in position. It allows him to have the space necessary to see everything and to allow it to happen and unfold in front of him. Then he can attack. Our little buzzword is always ‘patience, patience, explode.' And one thing he has been able to do for us is explode with some great runs and some great explosive plays for the offense here. Especially in the second half of the season.

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