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Vikings at Cowboys Week 10 Preview: Self-Defense

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For the second straight week, the Vikings have a chance at a road win that could help define their season. Can they stay out of their own way enough to beat the Cowboys?

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Want a perfect example of why football is the ultimate team game? Look no further than the Vikings’ frustrating 26-23 loss to the Chiefs last weekend.

The Minnesota offense did their part with a disappointing showing against a defense that had been fairly mediocre for most of the season. Kirk Cousins, reigning NFC Player of the Month, struggled mightily with accuracy and decision making. The offensive line allowed lots of pressure up the middle and couldn’t clear space for the NFL’s leading rusher against a previously porous run defense.

Not to be outdone, the Vikings defense disappointed in their own way. They couldn’t conjure much pressure of their own through the first three quarters, which meant that their suddenly suspect secondary was torched by the speed of Tyreek Hill all day. They allowed four plays of 30 or more yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run where only one defender was within sneezing distance of Damien Williams.

To remind us that all three phases of the game are important, Dan Bailey shanked an extra point to dampen the excitement of the Vikings’ first lead and drastically change what Kansas City needed to do in their fourth quarter comeback. Britton Colquitt shanked his final punt to give the Chiefs a comically short field for their game-winning drive.

Of course, a team is only as good as their coaching, so the Minnesota staff did their part in the loss with questionable play calling and game management throughout the day. Andy Reid and his staff got the better of Mike Zimmer and his coaches in just about every aspect—even clock management!

The Chiefs are still a very good team and Arrowhead Stadium is an extremely tough place to play. But as I walked out with the thousands of purple-clad Vikings fans that had made the trip to Kansas City that afternoon, I couldn’t shake one underlying and all-too-familiar sentiment:

Once again, the Minnesota Vikings had beaten themselves.


Arif Hasan of The Athletic broke down they key factors that attributed to the loss in Kansas City, including Cousins’ rigid mechanics and how the Chiefs’ team speed hindered Minnesota’s defense and special teams. Courtney Cronin of ESPN noted how the Vikings got away from much of what made them so good over their four-game win streak. A slight improvement or a better result in even one phase means we’re likely talking about a 7-2 team this week. Alas, we’re still talking about the Vikings, so that didn’t actually happen.

So how can the Vikings defeat their biggest proverbial opponent—themselves—in order to defeat their actual opponent—the Dallas Cowboys—on Sunday night?

The best way to learn from your mistakes: identify your weaknesses and address them. Matthew Coller of SKOR North had an article about how pressure up the middle is the a surefire way to get the Minnesota offense sputtering. Chris Jones did his best Akiem Hicks impression in Week 9, repeatedly blowing up the interior of the Vikings offensive line. Once Cousins faces a decent amount of pressure up the gut, he tends to lower his eyes and focus on getting rid of the ball as soon as possible. It results in nervous play and unnecessary checkdowns when the pressure isn’t actually coming. You know, Kurt stuff.

Another proven method to slow down the Vikings offense: creating that pressure without bringing extra blitzers. Cousins has performed well against the blitz throughout his career. This year, his Pro Football Focus grade when being blitzed is virtually identical to when the opposing defense doesn’t rush additional defenders: 81.0 to 80.9, respectively. But the splits are much more severe when broken down by pressure versus no pressure. When Cousins has a clean pocket, his grade is 93.1. When he’s under pressure, the grade dips to an actively bad 54.3. Long story short: if you can get pressure on Cousins with four or fewer rushers—especially up the middle against the extremely suspect pass blocking of Pat Elflein and Garrett Bradbury—he’s gonna have a bad time.

According to this data from ESPN’s Seth Walder, guess which team has been the most efficient in the league at creating pressure without blitzing?

Before you abandon all hope and resign yourself to another humiliating Vikings loss in front of a national audience, I do have a glimmer of hope to offer. Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli creates a lot of that pressure with the front four by dialing up lots of stunts and unbalanced formations on the line. It worked well on several occasions in Week 9 against the Giants. The newly acquired Michael Bennett made an instant impact alongside DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Maliek Collins.

Creating pressure like that can be deadly when it gets home, but it can also lead to big plays when offenses run or pass to the gaps left by the lopsided attacks. The Cowboys rank sixth in the league in total defense, but they’re currently 20th in explosive run plays allowed and 15th in explosive pass plays allowed on a per-play basis. Their tendency to be more boom-or-bust is part of the reason why they’re ranked only 17th in defensive DVOA.

The Cowboys have a solid corps of linebackers that can fill in behind some of the gaps left by the frequently shifting front four. Leighton Vander Esch isn’t quite playing at the level that had him in the running for Rookie of the Year in 2018, but he’s still an impact player. Sean Lee has had a brilliant career whenever he can actually stay healthy enough to be on the field. Lee was limited in practice on Wednesday, but he has seen his workload increase over each of the past five games. Jaylon Smith is the Cowboys’ main playmaker at the second level. His instincts and athleticism allow him to cover a ton of ground and make a lot of disruptive plays, especially against the run. Watch how Smith hunts down this shotgun handoff to Saquon Barkley and stops it for a minimal gain:

However, just like the Dallas front four, Smith’s aggressive nature can be used against him at times. The Giants showed a very similar shotgun look later in the game and got a huge play out of it. Smith tries to close in on Barkley again, but he’s easily shoved aside by the down field blocker as Barkley rumbles for a 65 yard gain. The Vikings offense has been at its best when it utilizes misdirection and runs different plays out of similar looks. It will need a good dose of both to counteract the Cowboys’ aggressive defense.

Despite the fact that the game was close until Dallas blew the game open in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Giants used play action on only eight of their 50 dropbacks last week. That’s ridiculous, especially when you have Barkley in the backfield. Although the Cowboys will likely focus on stopping Dalvin Cook and the running game much like the Chiefs did, Kevin Stefanski should absolutely stick with play action to keep the often overzealous Dallas defense off balance.

Keeping the defense guessing is important, because unlike a couple of the other NFC East opponents the Vikings have faced this season, the Cowboys don’t gift wrap yards through the air. Xavier Woods, Byron Jones, and Jourdan Lewis highlight a Cowboys secondary that has been solid in coverage this season. With Adam Thielen likely sidelined, the Vikings will need to find ways to scheme Stefon Diggs, Irv Smith Jr., Kyle Rudolph, and Olabisi Johnson open. Maybe the 22nd or 23rd overall picks of the 2016 NFL Draft could even chip in! Josh Doctson is “ready to go” and Laquon Treadwell is coming off a career high 58 yards. The possibilities are endless!

While the Dallas D may have a couple vulnerabilities to attack, game planning for the Cowboys offense is a much tougher task. They’re #1 in yards per game, offensive DVOA, and offensive PFF grade through the first half of the season. The Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper triumvirate aren’t quite on the level of the “Triplets” holy trinity of the 90’s, but it is no longer blasphemy to draw some similarities between the groups. Elliott will rightfully get the lion’s share of touches and attention throughout the game; he’s one of the best backs in the NFL. But what worries me most about the Dallas offense is Prescott finding Cooper on deep connections. With Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes struggling on the outside, Cooper could continue his 2019 trend of amassing huge plays through the air.

This example was against the porous Eagles secondary, but it sure felt familiar compared to what we saw last Sunday in Kansas City:

The status of what might be the Cowboys’ biggest threat is now in question after news broke Thursday morning that Cooper had an MRI on his knee. A change in his availability could drastically change how Dallas attacks the Minnesota defense.

Zeke has already “secured the bag” with a big new contract. Cooper has been in talks about an extension since his arrival from Oakland sparked an offensive turnaround for Dallas. Dak has been playing so well that he’ll be able to use the Progressive Name Your Price Tool for his inevitable new mega-contract. Throwing copious amounts of money at three skill position players is bound to hamstring other areas of the team down the road, but for now Dallas still has one of the best offensive lines in the league. Zack Martin, La’el Collins, and Tyron Smith are among the very best at their respective positions. Football Outsiders has the Dallas O-line first in adjusted line yards and fourth in adjusted sack rate.

If that wasn’t enough, Michael Gallup provides no rest for the weary when it comes to deep threats on the outside opposite Cooper. Tony Pollard has been a sneaky-good rotational back while helping to keep Zeke fresh. Randall Cobb has proven to have something left in the tank at slot receiver. Jason Witten is...still much better at playing tight end than announcing. There just aren’t many weaknesses when it comes to the Cowboys offense.

The only area where the Dallas offense has struggled a bit is turning the ball over. Prescott is a dual threat quarterback that can make huge plays with his arm and his legs, but he has thrown in a handful of head-scratching decisions this year. Dak threw a bad interception on the first play from scrimmage last week, which was his eighth of the season. Six of his eight picks have come with ten or more yards to go for a first down. If the Vikings can force Dallas into more second or third and long scenarios, Zimmer’s propensity to disguise pre-snap coverage could pay dividends.

I probably emphasize this in just about every preview against tough opponents, but getting off to a good start is even more crucial than usual this week for the Vikings. While the Dallas offense has been extremely efficient overall, they have sputtered out of the gate against some lesser opponents this season. The Cowboys have a point differential of +85 on the season yet they’re -4 in the first quarter. The Vikings are light years better on both sides of the ball when they have the lead; last week was the first time they had given up a lead all season. In fact, the Vikings had only one lead change all season before the back-and-forth affair in Kansas City. It feels like you can kind of tell which Vikings team is showing up after the first few drives; hopefully we’ll see the good version out of the gate in Arlington.

Getting off to a good start may depend upon how well the defenses can get off the field. As Vikings writer Lindsey Young pointed out in her Numbers of Note article, the Cowboys have the best offense on third down conversions (50%) and the second best defense when it comes to preventing them (27.1%). The Vikings are 12th in both categories after being historically great on defensive third downs for the past two seasons.

Despite giving up their fair share of big plays, Dallas has hunkered down in the red zone this season. The Cowboys have allowed touchdowns on only twelve of 29 trips this season, which is the third best percentage in the NFL. The Vikings should be able to move the ball on Sunday night, but what they do on the “money downs” will likely be the difference. Sustaining drives and finishing them off with touchdowns once they get in scoring range will help slow down a Cowboys offense that’s scoring the second most points per possession in 2019.

The Cowboys have a lot of impressive pieces. They’re going to challenge the Vikings at every level and position. But they’re far from infallible. For a team with so much talent and weapons, they can look truly lost at times. Five of their eight games have come against the worst teams in the NFL, giving them what has been by far the easiest schedule anyone in the NFC has faced thus far. Despite a 37-19 record since the start of the 2016 season, Jason Garrett still manages to find himself on the hot seat once or twice a year. This team managed to lose to the freaking Jets less than a month ago. If the Vikings play as well as they did for most of October, they could absolutely win this game.

Of course, the counterpoints to a potential win in this situation are almost a reflex to Vikings fans at this point. This is a prime time road game against a team with a winning record—a terrible trifecta that has doomed Cousins, Zimmer, and the Vikings for the majority of the current decade. Every time they have a chance to prove that they’re more than a second-tier team with a ceiling that might be higher than “sneaking into the playoffs and losing on Wild Card Weekend,” they falter.

I went back and forth on this pick because the Vikings and Cowboys have been similar in a lot of ways this season. Both teams have looked great in several comfortable wins. Both have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with self-sabotage late in close games. Depending on the week, Minnesota and Dallas can vacillate between title hopefuls and their own worst enemies. With two teams that are so closely matched on paper, I did a simple thought experiment to break my mental deadlock: which scenario is more likely?

  1. The Vikings jumping out to a lead, dictating the flow of the game by getting the ball to their playmakers early and often, pressuring Dallas into suboptimal game situations and coaching decisions; or
  2. Cris Collinsworth ending the NBC broadcast by telling Al Michaels how Prescott and the Cowboys have shown that they’re a force to be reckoned with in the crowded NFC playoff picture after a decisive win over the Vikings?

I think we know which one sounds more feasible. Until the Vikings can shake their all-too-predictable habit of coming up short in games like this, I can’t predict a win for them on Sunday night.

Prediction

Cowboys 27, Vikings 20


And now for the rest of my Week 10 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Chargers over RAIDERS

Good luck trying to figure out either of these bipolar teams, especially on a short week. I’ll go with the Chargers because it looks like they might have figured out their defense a bit more.

SAINTS over Falcons

My survivor pool pick of the week, now 9-0 on the season after the 49ers held off the Cardinals last Thursday. This one’s a complete no-brainer. And if I happen to get it wrong, think of all the “should have stuck with Teddy Bridgewater” tweets I can fire off!

Bills over BROWNS

How the hell are the 2-6 Browns favored over the 6-2 Bills? Vegas is just begging everyone to pick Buffalo only to see Cleveland finally get their shit together. But the Browns have been proving for half a season that their shit knows no bounds and refuses to be put together.

Lions over BEARS

As of this posting, Mitchell Trubisky is still the starting quarterback of the Chicago Bears. Which is why I’m picking the Detroit Lions.

Ravens over BENGALS

Unless A.J. Green can also pass block and throw passes to himself while running routes, I don’t think his potential return will make much of a difference in this game.

Chiefs over TITANS

It sounds like Patrick Mahomes will return this week, but I think they’ll dispatch the Titans either way.

Giants over JETS

I feel like there’s a nonzero chance that MetLife Stadium collapses upon itself when the two black hole franchises that reside there face off on Sunday.

BUCCANEERS over Cardinals

It’s the “They’re Bad, But Still A Lot Of Fun To Watch” Bowl! I’m excited for this game to turn up about two dozen times on the RedZone Channel Sunday afternoon.

COLTS over Dolphins

Congratulations Miami, you got your win. Now go back to tanking before you accidentally finish with only the sixth worst record in the league.

PACKERS over Panthers

Green Bay’s offense looked atrocious last week in LA. There’s no way that the football gods would bless us with two straight weeks of that.

Rams over STEELERS

So maybe Pittsburgh isn’t all the way done for just yet. But they had to have a lot of things break their way to eke by the Colts last week. I don’t think they’ll be quite as lucky against a Rams team that has had two weeks to prepare.

49ERS over Seahawks

Wait...ESPN got a really good game for Monday Night Football?! This has to be some sort of mistake! I know picking against Russell Wilson is usually an exercise in futility, but San Francisco has a much more complete team.

Last week: 6-8
Season so far: 86-48-1