5 things: Vikings should have opportunities on offense vs. Dallas

Sitting at 1-6, the Minnesota Vikings say this season is nothing like 2011 when the team went 3-13.

Players say the feeling around the team and in the locker room doesn’t have the same vibe as 2011. General manager Rick Spielman said this season’s youth is a change from the veteran-laden 2011 roster. Even this week, after a disappointing home loss on national TV last week to the rival Green Bay Packers, there was more optimism than angst.

Defensive end Jared Allen called last week’s loss “rock-bottom” and said “drastic changes” will happen this week. Spielman even expressed optimism because of what he sees behind the scenes and the work that is being put in.

Minnesota gets the chance to show it can turn its season around at Dallas on Sunday against the 4-4 Cowboys. Here are five things to watch as the Vikings look to snap a three-game losing streak:

1. Home cooking

Minnesota can only hope playing in Dallas — or actually Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is — can be the cure to what ails the Vikings. Christian Ponder, who is from Dallas, will be getting his second straight start at quarterback for Minnesota and will need a good performance, both for his own prospects as well as the Vikings’ hope to win. Running back Adrian Peterson, stopped under 100 yards rushing in three straight games, is from nearby Palestine, Texas, and will have a large contingent of family and friends at the game.

Minnesota’s offense is 29th in the league in terms of yards gained this season, ranking 17th in rushing and 27th in passing. Ponder and Peterson were two important pieces as the Vikings made their run last season, both could use bounceback games Sunday near their hometowns.

2. The chances should be there

While Ponder and the passing game, and Peterson and the running game, need to have better efforts, sustain drives and control the clock, they might have their chance against Dallas’ hurting and ineffective defense. The Cowboys are last in the league, allowing 422.5 yards per game this year. The run defense is ranked 17th, allowing 107.1 yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush. The pass defense is the worst in the NFL, giving up 315.4 yards per game.

Monte Kiffin, the former Vikings defensive coordinator, is in his first season coordinating Dallas’ defense. He’s helped the Cowboys develop a knack for taking the ball away on defense. Dallas has 19 takeaways this season, which is tied for third in the NFL, with 11 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. The Cowboys also rank just 17th in points allowed this season (23.25 per game) while giving up the league’s most yards.

Dallas has middle linebacker Sean Lee playing at a level to be in consideration for the league’s defensive player of the year award. Lee is tied for second in the league in tackles and has four interceptions. But the Cowboys will likely be without three defensive starters, including pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. Ware is doubtful with a thigh injury and has missed the past two games. Cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety J.J. Wilcox have already been declared out.

3. Have to stop them, too

Dallas has its troubles on defense, but is eighth in the league in passing this season. Tony Romo, so maligned earlier in his career, has become one of the league’s top quarterbacks, consistent and underrated. He ranks fifth in the league in passer rating and has helped the Cowboys throw for 261.3 yards per game this season. Receiver Miles Austin is doubtful, but Romo still has top options in receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten and rookie Terrance Williams has filled in successfully for Austin.

And Dallas isn’t the only team in Arlington this week hurting on defense. Minnesota ranks 30th in total defense this year, allowing 401.6 yards per game. The pass defense comes in at 29th, giving up 287.9 yards per game. And like the Cowboys, the Vikings will be playing shorthanded on Sunday. Safety Harrison Smith, the secondary’s top playmaker, was already out with turf toe and on injured reserve. Minnesota will also be without cornerback Chris Cook (hip) and safety Jamarca Sanford (groin) on Sunday, leaving the Vikings without their of their four starters in the secondary. Mistral Raymond and Andrew Sendejo will start at safety, and coach Leslie Frazier wasn’t sure who would start opposite Josh Robinson at cornerback between Xavier Rhodes, Marcus Sherels and A.J. Jefferson.

4. Dallas is getting healthy at one spot

Minnesota’s run defense, meanwhile, has fallen to 21st in the league and allowing 113.7 yards per game. The Cowboys have only rushed for 80.6 yards per game this season, but should be getting back DeMarco Murray, the team’s top running back. Murray has missed the past two games because of a knee injury, but he returned to practice last week and participated fully in practice this week.

Murray is listed as probable and should give the Dallas running game a boost. He’s 16th in the league in rushing with 428 yards, despite missing the two games and he’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry. He’s scored three touchdowns and has added 24 catches for 164 yards.

5. All comes back to the quarterback

While the defense has crumbled this year, many of the questions for Minnesota keep coming back to quarterback, the game’s most critical position. Ponder gets another reprieve and a chance to start his second straight game. He started the first three games, all losses, before fracturing a rib and losing his job. He said he was more relaxed getting back in the starting lineup last week, but he didn’t look any different on Sunday than earlier in the year.

Ponder will have to show the confidence, stay strong and deliver the ball to the receivers. He pulled the ball down quickly and started running in Sunday’s loss to Green Bay. Dallas defense should give Ponder chances, but he needs to be confident enough to take advantage. He has a chance to stake a claim to his starting spot, but Josh Freeman is still waiting in the wings and the team likely wouldn’t hesitate to go back to Freeman if he proves he’s more prepared to handle the offense than he was in his one start. The opportunity to seize the starting job for the rest of the season is there for Ponder, and maybe Freeman if Ponder struggles. One of them will have to step up and take it.

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