The Dallas Cowboys just don’t give you many chances.
They currently lead the league in time of possession (32:32 per game). They run more plays (7.02) and travel more yards (40.8) than any other team each time they have the ball, while also converting an NFL-best 51.8% of their drives into points. They’ve turned it over just seven times; only Buffalo (six) has been more careful.
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So, even if Minnesota’s defense shows up in a big way on Thursday night, can its offense take advantage of what limited opportunities it may have?
The answer, as always, starts with QB Sam Bradford. He’s coming off an incredibly conservative Thanksgiving Day performance vs. Detroit—his passes traveled 3.44 yards on average, the second lowest total by any quarterback this season. When he extended the target area by a few yards later in the game, he threw a game-deciding interception.
But he also hit on 31 of his 37 attempts. The Lions rank No. 32 in completion percentage against (74%), the Cowboys check in at No. 31 (70.3%). Should Bradford opt to play it close to the vest again, the Cowboys likely will be more than willing to allow him to do so, especially if they can limit the Vikings’ humdrum rushing attack. Bradford’s approach in Detroit resulted in just 13 points.
The Vikings seem to think they can be more aggressive Thursday, and are likely hopeful Stefon Diggs’s return from a knee injury will help spark that aggression. Diggs does not have a plethora of home-run plays this season, but he does have his team’s longest reception (46 yards) and is averaging a respectable 11.1 yards after the catch. A receiving corps of Diggs, Laquon Treadwell, Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson is what Minnesota envisioned heading into the year. Because of Diggs’s recent injury and Treadwell’s inability to crack the lineup, that vision has not come to fruition as of yet.
A troublesome trend for the Vikings on the other side of the ball: Their once-fearsome run defense has allowed 118.8 yards per game during this ongoing 1–5 stretch. That’s bad news with Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite and potential MVP Ezekiel Elliott arriving. Elliott is leading the league in attempts (243) and yards (1,199), and has 11 TDs on the year.
His offensive line has opened holes for him no matter the opponent—against Baltimore’s top-ranked run defense two weeks ago, Elliott still managed to churn out 97 yards on 25 attempts.
“They’re really good. They’re really, really good,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer of Dallas’ O-line. “They’re the best line I’ve seen in a long time in the NFL: physical, athletic, big.”
For his defense to have any hope of stymieing the 10–1 Cowboys, it will require a huge performance in the middle by DT Linval Joseph, plus extremely active showings from the likes of Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith. The latter, in particular, has not been himself in recent weeks while fighting an ankle injury.
Smith could be freed up to attack the line (or blitz Dak Prescott) because Xavier Rhodes should give Dez Bryant quite a challenge. That doesn’t mean Prescott will avoid Bryant if one-on-one chances do emerge. Should he look elsewhere, though, the reliable tandem of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten will be his beck and call.
The Cowboys will lean on Elliott, but they’ve found ways to move the ball through other means, too. Getting them off the field is a significant challenge, and the key to Minnesota’s Thursday night hopes.
Nothing has rattled the Cowboys yet this season, so a mid-week, prime-time game on the road shouldn’t be a problem. Both teams had the full week to prepare, thanks to their Thanksgiving contests.
The Vikings should be able to move the ball on the Dallas defense, but again it may look a lot like last week’s trip to Detroit—a nickel-and-dime approach predicated on short passes. Can their offensive line hold up well enough to maintain those drives the length of the field? Can they cash in with touchdowns inside the red zone?
They’ll need to do both, because their defense will have its hands full. While Minnesota still boasts an excellent defense, it has been more fallible since the Week 6 bye, particularly against the run. If Elliott & Co., establish the tone early, it will be very difficult for the Vikings to swing it back the other direction.
Key player: Treadwell. Zimmer has talked up his struggling rookie receiver in recent days, hype which coincides with Bradford and interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur insisting the offense find more big plays. Treadwell is capable of providing those if he can establish clean releases off the line.
One or two home-run shots in a game like this could make all the difference.
Bold prediction: Jack Crawford notches multiple sacks.
Scratch this one if Crawford (foot) winds up out of the lineup Thursday, but he is expected to play. He never has had more than 1.0 sack in a game. If the Cowboys can race out to a lead, this could be his shot thanks to the Vikings’ continued awfulness at the tackle spots.
Bradford was so quick on the trigger last week because it helped negate the porous pass blocking—those passes to the flat work as a supplement to the lacking run game, too. But if Minnesota does, in fact, commit to working downfield more or finds itself needing to rally in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys’ D-line ought to have chances in the backfield.
Crawford arguably has been the most impressive of an underwhelming group.