If we are being honest with ourselves, what chance do we really give the Minnesota Vikings to knock off the 10-1 Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football? Ten percent? One in a million? Somewhere in between?
Bottom line: it doesn’t appearing promising. Obviously anything is possible (Kevin Garnett voice) and the Vikings should give it their damnedest with their playoff life hanging in the balance. The Cowboys have won 10 straight and feature two Rookie of the Year and MVP candidates in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. The Dallas offensive line is the cream of the crop as far as that unit goes in the NFL, simply overpowering opposing defensive fronts. It wasn’t long ago this projected to be one of the marquee matchups of the season—and in Thursday Night Football history for that matter—but now we have two teams heading in different directions.
How can Minnesota reverse its course and get back into the playoff hunt? Beating Dallas would be an enormous first step. Sure it isn’t probable but it is possible, so let’s look at some keys for the Vikings to come away with a shocking victory that could help them rediscover that early-season swagger.
Create Chunk Plays: After a disheartening offensive showing on Thanksgiving in Detroit, all the talk this week has been about the Vikings needing to generate big plays. That sounds great in theory, and frankly what team doesn’t want to hit home run plays, but does Minnesota have the personnel to do that? I for one don’t think so. Pining for another Randy Moss three catch, three touchdown, 163-yard game isn’t realistic considering the Vikings offensive line and receivers. But what Minnesota can do is generate plays in the intermediate game and hope a missed or broken tackle leads to a chunk of YAC yards. Last week without Stefon Diggs really limited what Sam Bradford could do. Without the threat of Diggs or a running game, the Loins sat on the short passes, baiting Bradford into a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter when it appeared he has a streaking Laquon Treadwell open down field. As I’ve said—Bradford needs to do a better job hanging tough in the pocket waiting for receivers to break coverage. Manufacturing chunk plays isn’t only via go-routes and bombing away; crossing routes, corners and even some more slants would benefit the Vikings.
Diggs and Adam Thielen have both averaged over 11 yards per catch this year and should find opportunities to expose a Cowboys secondary that ranks 31st against the pass, allowing 372 yards passing per game over the last three weeks. What the Vikings can’t do is repeat its performance from last week. Bradford’s average pass traveled just 3.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, continually checking it underneath on third downs. Minnesota may not take the top off the defense but it can find success in the intermediate game and hope one of their playmakers can break it big.
Tackle, tackle, tackle: Let’s all just take a moment to mentally prepare for Elliott running all over the collective ass of the Vikings defense. It is going to be frustrating, you’ll want to throw things, you will be screaming obscenities at your TV. The aforementioned Cowboy line is going to open up holes that even Matt Asiata could burst through. Accepting this fact beforehand is paramount to sound Vikings mental health.
With that said, Minnesota needs to tackle well in the second level. Chad Greenway gave up a 12-yard run on the Lions first series last week, filling the hole but whiffing on the tackle. Eric Kendricks has been banged up and Anthony Barr has been, well, disappointing at best this year. Going up against Dallas is not the time to have lapses in tackling. Elliott is going to get his yards but don’t compound that by letting a 4-yarder break loose for a 20-yard run. Limit the damage—get off the field.
Rush to Contain, Not Sack: Even after facing a string of depleted opposing offensive lines the Minnesota pass rush has remained relatively quiet during the recent slide. So it is hard to expect much pressure on Prescott with that line in front of him. The Vikings need to finish rushes off with sacks when presented the opportunity but more importantly, they need to contain Prescott in the pocket.
When Prescott extends plays and rolls out it becomes increasingly more difficult to cover. Receivers break off their routes unexpectedly and Prescott only has to read one side of the field. The game plan should mirror what Minnesota did against Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newtown, two quarterbacks lethal when flushed from the pocket. The Vikings need Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter to play a bit of contain—forgo the sacks and keep Prescott bottled up. With Xavier Rhodes likely shadowing Dez Bryant, I like Minnesota’s chances to cover well and Mike Zimmer’s schemes getting into the rookie quarterback’s head.
There will likely be designed runs for the Prescott but not allowing him to break contain and pickup first downs with his legs has to be a major point of emphasis. After Matthew Stafford, yes Matthew Stafford, torched the Vikings on a handful of runs on Thanksgiving, the effort must be far more concerted.
Find Cole Beasley on Third Down: The Cowboys offense has plenty of headliners: Elliott, Prescott, Bryant and Jason Witten. The unsung hero: Cole Beasley. The pesky little slot receiver has 58 catches on the year, 39 going for first down (67.2 percent). Minnesota can’t focus all their attention on the outside and let Beasley eat them up over the middle. Dallas leads the NFL in time of possession, in large part because of its stout rushing attack, but Beasley keeping drives alive by getting past the sticks has been another key. The Cowboy defense can be exposed but not from the sideline if the offense is churning out long drive after long drive.