One could forgive Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer if, while watching film of the Cowboys this week, he shakes his head and thinks “That should be us.” After all, the Cowboys are running roughshod over the NFL at 10-1 executing a blueprint that is much like what the Vikings had planned for this season.
It was nothing exotic: Run the ball effectively with a star back (Adrian Peterson) to protect a young, developing quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) who can hit the big plays when they are there but takes care of the ball in the passing game. Then play great defense and watch the wins pile up.
But Bridgewater blew out his knee in practice before the season even started, wiping out his 2016. Then Peterson injured his knee in Week 2 and is a long shot to return this season. Sam Bradford arrived late and started out well enough at quarterback, but he has regressed to his average self. Toss in a few key offensive line injuries, and you get the worst offense in the NFL. Even a defense playing at a top-five level all season hasn’t been enough during a current 1-5 stretch.
Meanwhile, with Ezekiel Elliott playing the role of Peterson and Dak Prescott the counterpart for Bridgewater, the Cowboys have been so good on offense that they haven’t even had to be very good on defense. Dallas ranks fourth in total offense and third in scoring offense. Until being held to 353 yards on Thanksgiving against Washington, the Cowboys had reeled off eight straight games with more than 400 yards of total offense. Only Buffalo has run it better or turned the ball over less. And Prescott has tossed 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Dallas at Minnesota
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 1 at 8:25 p.m. ET
Broadcast Channels: NBC, NFL Network, Twitter
Spread: Cowboys -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will the Vikings’ defense attack the Cowboys?
As good as Dak Prescott has been, it’s no secret it all starts with the running game for Dallas. The Cowboys rank second in the NFL in yards but first in attempts per game by a wide margin. So far, they have been stubborn enough to stick with it even against the best run defenses (see Week 11 vs. Baltimore). So we know what to expect from them. The Vikings’ defense is middle of the pack against the run but elite against the pass; they probably can’t just do what they do and slow down the Dallas running game like the Ravens did. So will Minnesota sell out to stop Ezekiel Elliott and trust its pass rush (28 sacks, seventh in the NFL) and secondary (12 interceptions, third in the NFL) to naturally stop Prescott? Or will the Vikes throw a bunch of exotic blitzes at Prescott to confuse him?
2. Sam Bradford must air it out
At a glance, Bradford has done an admirable job considering he joined the Vikings just days before the season opener, In 10 starts, Bradford has completed 71.3 percent of his passes and thrown 12 touchdowns with just three interceptions. On a team with a great defense, safe can be good from your quarterback. But the Vikings average a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry, so safe in the passing game isn’t going to get it done. On Thanksgiving in Detroit, Bradford hit on 31 of 37 pass attempts... but no wide receiver caught a pass that went for more than 10 yards, and the Vikes scored 13 points. Bradford’s last pass was intercepted, setting up the winning field goal. One mistake, and “safe” turned out to be “dead.” Bradford said this week he wants to throw deep more but needs the time to do it. He may be able to get it against a Dallas pass rush that is tied for 25th in the NFL in sacks.
3. Dez Bryant vs. Xavier Rhodes
Bryant hasn’t always been healthy, but he is averaging 16.7 yards per reception and is tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches. His catch rate also is down (33 receptions in 65 targets), but in his last three games he has 17 grabs (on 24 targets) for 268 yards and three scores. He and Prescott are obviously getting to know each other better. Rhodes has developed into one of the league’s top corners and become a ball hawk this season. After picking off just two passes in his first three seasons, Rhodes has four thus far, including two against Arizona, one of which he took back 100 yards for a touchdown. He also likes the big stage: In October on a Monday night, he held Odell Beckham Jr. to three catches for 23 yards in a win over the Giants. If he can do that to Bryant, it makes the rest of the defense better against Prescott, Elliott and company.
We keep waiting for Dak Prescott to have “one of those games” that all rookies seem to have, the one where they look confused and can’t get anything going. Perhaps this will be the one, because Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer has a lot of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to running a defense. But Ezekiel Elliott and the running game have been a constant for Dallas, and the Vikings have been nothing special stopping the run. And until Sam Bradford proves otherwise, the Vikings’ offense just isn’t explosive enough to beat a really good team.