The Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings enter Week 11 with opposing impressions about how Week 10 ended. In what might have been the game of the year so far, the Vikings started off looking like 7-1 frauds. They had already lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, and were down 27-10 to the Buffalo Bills in the second half, with Kirk Cousins having thrown two interceptions. Minnesota earned a furious comeback win on the road that included a fourth-down failure, forcing a fumble and recovering for a TD, allowing a game-tying drive with under a minute on the clock and finally an overtime win.
The Cowboys flipped that script, allowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to evaporate, then failing on a fourth down in OT only to watch another game-winning drive by Aaron Rodgers send them home dejected. Will momentum continue the way Week 10 ended, or can the Cowboys take down the Vikings’ ship for a third straight time? Here are the keys to answering that question for Dallas and Minnesota.
Containing the opposing run game
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The Bills held Dalvin Cook to 13 carries for only 38 yards… if his 81-yard breakaway run didn’t happen. Unfortunately for Dallas, the true numbers for Cook added up to 14 carries for 119 yards, 8.5 yards per carry, and a TD.
Cook has run for 75 yards or more in all but two games this season, bad news for a Cowboys defense that is struggling to stop the run. The only shred of good news, the two bad games for Cook were both against opponents in the NFC East. He only averaged 2.8 yards per carry in their games against the Washington Commanders and Philadelphia Eagles. If this trend continues, then maybe it’s possible the Cowboys can follow suit.
For Dallas, the loss of Ezekiel Elliott impacted both sides of the ball. Tony Pollard and Malik Davis filled in more than admirably in the two-game absence as Pollard ran for over 100 yards in both games and Davis averaged 7.6 yards per attempt against the Packers.
The issue with losing Elliott was Dallas missed their workhorse back. With him out of the line up the Cowboys threw the ball 46 times, compared to handing off to the running backs only 27 times in a game they led by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Elliott averages more than 15 attempts a game, while Pollard eclipsed that mark only once this season and that was against the Packers on Sunday.
Can the Cowboys change anything to help limit the Vikings rushing attack? That could be the most important key to this contest, but the ability of Dallas to run out the clock if they get a lead and keep their defense fresh with an impactful run game could just as big of a factor.
The CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson standoff
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Lamb and Jefferson will be linked together for their entire careers due to how they were drafted. Lamb shockingly falling to Dallas at pick No. 17 of the 2020 NFL Draft and Jefferson somehow being skipped over by the Philadelphia Eagles at pick N0. 21, to the draft room joy of the Vikings who drafted him one selection later.
Lamb has had a good start to his career, averaging over 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in his first two seasons. This success has been downplayed though by the unbelievable numbers from Jefferson who has averaged over 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns in the same time span.
Even this season, when Lamb is on pace for career highs with over 1,300 yards on 100 receptions, and nine scores, stepping his averages up as the top receiver on Dallas with Amari Cooper gone, he still can’t escape Jefferson’s greatness. As possibly the best receiver in the NFL, Jefferson is on pace to have a 2,000-yard season with 130 catches and seven touchdowns.
Lamb even had the best game of his career this past week. He brought in 11 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns but it was on the heels of Jefferson’s career high in yards, 193, on one less catch. Lamb has been better overall head-to-head though. Not only going 2-0 but putting up ten catches for 146 yards and a touchdown with Andy Dalton and Cooper Rush as his starting quarterbacks compared to five grabs for 107 yards and a touchdown for Jefferson who had his starting QB playing in both contests.
This matchup is critical because Dallas has struggled with the run so much recently that if Jefferson can have a big game on Trevon Diggs, the Minnesota offense could be overwhelming. Lamb will need to be huge for Dallas considering Michael Gallup’s lackluster play since his return from an ACL tear. There’s altogether a lack of production behind Lamb in the receiving core. Noah Brown is second on the team with 342 yards on the season.
Success of scripted plays
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The vast contrast between the two teams in this area is why it’s such an important key to this match up. The Vikings lead the league in opening-drive points with 42, and they are second in yards per opening drive at 54. Kirk Cousins has thrived in Kevin O’Connell’s scripted plays. He is completing over 80% of his passes at more than 12 yards per pass while not having a single three and out all season on opening drives.
Early success for Minnesota could help them stay close throughout the game, leading to them being able to control the game by running the ball. This would simultaneously help wear down the Cowboys defense while limiting the possessions of the Dallas offense.
Dallas is very successful on possessions after their opening drive. They score the second most in points-per-drive and also have a top-five percentage in least amoung of 3-and-outs.
The team is middle of the pack in points scored on opening drives though, scoring 23 points and more 3-and-outs than touchdown drives overall.
If the Cowboys can have success scoring on their opening drive, or stopping the Vikings on theirs, then it should bode well for Dallas the rest of the game as they are a top scoring offense past that point.