Vikings facing strongest test against full-throttle Dallas offense

·5 min read

There's a little bit of the Spider-Man meme in these Vikings and Cowboys offenses, set for the prime-time stage on Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. You know, the one where two identical cartoon Spider-Men are pointing at each other.

No, the Vikings aren't as potent as the Cowboys. But at their best, both offenses are explosive, balanced and turnover-free. They're both coming off overtime road victories, with the Cowboys (5-1) racking up 567 yards at New England and the Vikings (3-3) topping it with 571 yards at Carolina.

At their worst is where things get different. The engine dies on the Vikings offense too often; they rank 29th in three-and-outs per drive, according to Football Outsiders. Conversely, the Cowboys' motor doesn't stop — at least it hasn't yet — which will provide the strongest test so far for the Vikings defense.

Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and a top-flight receiver corps lead the league's highest-scoring team, which averages 34.2 points through six games. It doesn't matter whether they run or pass; the Cowboys rank top five in yards per attempt.

The Vikings defense will have its hands full. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler steps into the spotlight, replacing the injured Patrick Peterson. Here's a look at what Dantzler and the Vikings defense are facing this week. While the Cowboys are strong in many areas, there's one where neither they nor the Vikings defense have fared well.

1. The Cowboys are the NFL's top attack on first down, averaging a league-high 6.6 yards per play, including a league-high 9 yards per throw, according to Sharp Football Stats. Prescott didn't even face a third down in overtime against the Patriots, marching 80 yards for the winning score in seven plays.

Receiver CeeDee Lamb (#88) is talented enough to win one-on-one matchups, but he and the rest of Prescott's targets benefit from a feared running game that's among the league's most efficient with Elliott and speedy backup Tony Pollard. So when the Cowboys marched into Patriots territory in overtime, New England loaded up to stop what is typically a conservative running play to set up a field goal. But Cowboys coordinator Kellen Moore dialed up a play-action dagger on first down.

"It all starts with the running game," coach Mike Zimmer said of the Cowboys' passing attack. "They've got a terrific offensive line, their protection has been outstanding, the quarterback moves well in the pocket once he gets flushed, and then they've got a lot of really good receivers and tight ends. They get the ball to the backs quite a bit. So, we're going to have to mix and match [coverages] like we always do."

Lamb's 35-yard touchdown was the product of a condensed formation that helped sell the run. It also helps that Patriots corner Jalen Mills (#2) is aligned outside of Lamb, with New England spacing 10 defenders near the line to stop Elliott (#21).

As the play develops, the Patriots' Adrian Phillips (#21) bites hard on the run. He tries to backpedal in coverage, but gets stuck in no man's land. The safety that would've been in position to cover Lamb drops shallow and into the flat, seemingly replacing Phillips. With the threat of the run drawing everyone up, no one is deep to help Mills cover Lamb.

Prescott suffered a calf strain on this play. Afterward, he was seen in a walking boot but said "I'll be fine," regarding his availability on Sunday.

2. The Cowboys are succeeding while piecing the offensive line together. Right tackle La'el Collins is eligible to return Sunday from a five-game suspension, but it's unclear what role he'll play as Terence Steele has reportedly done well in his place. It hasn't been totally smooth for the Dallas O-line. Eight flags flew against the Cowboys line in their most recent outing in New England, where left tackle Tyron Smith briefly exited with an ankle injury. But Smith returned, and the Cowboys could field Smith, Collins and right guard Zack Martin together against the Vikings for the first time under head coach Mike McCarthy.

Elliott (#21) found some room to run behind Smith in New England. On this first down in the fourth quarter, Smith (#71) takes advantage of an aggressive uphill rush by Patriots edge defender Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91).

Smith (#71) pivots and walls off Wise (#91), creating the alley for Elliott. The Cowboys running back has looked more like his dominant 2018 and 2019 seasons. It also helps when you've got a wide-open runway. Elliott sees the opening and cuts to his left, where he does more damage on the 21-yard run by spinning past the Patriots safety.

3. One area where Dallas has been inconsistent is the red zone, where they've committed four of their seven turnovers. This will be a critical area on Sunday night, because it's also a weak spot for the Vikings defense. The Cowboys offense ranks 27th in points scored per red-zone drive, while the Vikings defense ranks 27th in points allowed per red-zone drive. Something's gotta give.

Below is one of the Cowboys' two red-zone turnovers against the Patriots, and a rare throwing mistake from Prescott (he's more prone to fumbles, tying three others with a league-leading six fumbles in six games). The Patriots show man-to-man coverage with all defenders shallow and ahead of the first-down marker on third-and-9. But they'll drop into a zone coverage. Even so, Prescott will have a window to receiver Cedrick Wilson (#1).

As Patriots defenders drop into zone coverage, Wilson (#1) faces outside leverage from the defender that he leans into by bending his route to the left before turning on the skinny post. This buys some space, as does tight end Dalton Schultz (#86), who draws the inside defender toward the middle of the field. There's a throwing lane. But Prescott's pass is placed behind Wilson, which leads to a batted ball and interception.