GREEN BAY - Dalvin Cook would like to think this is a “normal” week.
That’s how the Minnesota Vikings star running back is preparing. He’s still getting to the training room early each morning, still putting in the work to heal his injured shoulder. Still focusing on Monday night, when the Green Bay Packers travel to Minnesota for a game that could clinch the NFC North and go a long way toward securing a first-round bye.
There is just one difference this week.
That injured shoulder makes Cook’s chances of playing Monday awfully unlikely.
Cook, who did not practice Thursday, was no more revealing when he met with reporters in Minnesota on Thursday than Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was with Green Bay reporters around the same time. A few hours after ESPN reported the Packers are unlikely to face Cook this week, and that the Pro Bowl running back might be shut down for the regular season’s final two games after leaving last week’s win at the Los Angeles Chargers early in the second quarter, Cook sounded no different than business as usual.
“I’m going through my normal routine of getting ready for Monday night,” Cook said, “and we’re going to see how it goes. So I’ve been in the training room every day, starting my mornings early every day, and just grinding trying to get my shoulder so I can be available when my team needs me.
“If I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go.”
The Packers surely wouldn’t mind Cook taking the week off. Their run defense, which ranks 24th in the NFL, was gashed in Week 2. The Vikings lost that game, but Cook had a season-high 154 yards on 20 carries, including a 75-yard touchdown.
Cook since has gone on to have a breakout year, primarily because he had stayed healthy until now. The former second-round pick, whom the Packers considered drafting before settling on cornerback Kevin King with their first pick in 2017, has 1,135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while adding 519 receiving yards on 53 receptions.
Before their Week 2 game, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said Cook was the key to stopping the Vikings' offense. They didn’t stop Cook and won anyway, but their priorities would certainly change this week if Cook were unable to play.
“I think they’ve done such a good job no matter who’s been in there,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “But certainly, I mean, Dalvin Cook’s one of the premier backs in this game. No doubt about it.”
If Zimmer knows the plan for his backfield this week, he wasn’t in the mood to share it publicly. Zimmer neither confirmed nor denied not only the contents of ESPN’s report, but also the report’s very existence.
“I didn’t see any report,” he said.
Cook’s potential absence Monday would be compounded by the health status of his talented understudy. Backup Alexander Mattison might not have Cook’s Pro Bowl resume, but his 462 rushing yards on 100 carries is healthy production for a No. 2 back.
Mattison, a third-round rookie, missed last week’s game at the Los Angeles Chargers because of an ankle injury. Neither he nor Cool practiced Thursday
“He’s doing good,” Zimmer said, choosing not to reveal and specifics.
It isn’t uncommon for head coaches to be murky about their team’s health status in public remarks. So Zimmer’s unwillingness to rule out either running back this week is unsurprising.
Zimmer says his offense could function “pretty much the same” with Mattison as the primary back.
“They’re similar in a lot of ways,” Zimmer said of Cook and Mattison. “Both really good vision, good acceleration. Alexander is a physical runner, as is Cookie. He catches the ball in the backfield.”
While the Packers' run defense has struggled, the Vikings’ run game has flourished. Minnesota ranks fourth in the NFL with 135.9 rushing yards per game, and its 434 rushing attempts is third.
If the Vikings are without Cook and Mattison, the Packers likely would see undrafted tailback Mike Boone, veteran Ameer Abdullah and fullback C.J. Ham.
Boone was the Vikings’ primary running back finishing Sunday’s second half in Los Angeles, rushing for 56 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.
“I didn’t know much about him,” LaFleur said, “but he had a productive day. So they’ve got pieces there, and I think it all starts for them up front, how they come off the ball, and they’ve got a really good scheme. Kind of like our philosophy, they get everybody involved in terms of the receivers blocking, the tight ends blocking, and they’ve got a lot of things that play off of what they’re trying to get accomplished.”