When Dallas takes the field Sunday afternoon, it will face its first non-divisional foe in a month. That said, the three matchups against Washington and Philadelphia were good preps for the Vikings. Minnesota's offense, schematically anyway, strongly resembles Philadelphia. The Vikings defense, on the other hand, is not that far in scheme from Washington's.
The major difference is in personnel. The Vikings offer a much deeper and more balanced offense. Their defense also features a strong line, with bulk inside and speed outside. The Minnesota back seven has struggled a bit down the stretch, and will surrender yards through the air.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Vikings HC Brad Childress paid his NFL dues as Andy Reid's quarterbacks coach and OC at Philadelphia. His passing schemes and overall offense are very similar to his old bosses. Childress is more of a West Coast purist, in that his passing game under Brett Favre is more controlled.
Childress also runs the ball a lot more than Reid and with Adrian Peterson as his back, gets much better results. Peterson again finished among the league leaders with 1383 yards rushing, a figure that was more than 70% of the Vikings ground game. He's the feaure back, though Chester Taylor offers a dandy third down replacement, who can run for tough yards and catch out of the backfield.
Minnesota is primarily a left-haned running team, and is most effective when Peterson and Taylor follow LT Bryant McKinnie and LG Steve Hutchinson. The matchup between Hutchinson and Cowboys RE Igor Olshansky should be telling. Olshansky has been a rock this year and if he can hold his gap, he'll go a long way towards putting the game on Brett Favre's shoulders, where the Cowboys want it.
Despite Peterson's speed, the Vikings do not run well to the perimeter. Watch their stretch plays and inside traps designed to get Peterson through the line of scrimmage quickly. If he's on the inside linebackers and SS Gerald Sensabaugh regularly, the Vikings will have the 2nd and shorts they want, which will keep Wade Phillips' blitzes in his back pocket.
Peterson is perhaps a more dangerous threat as a pass catcher. He averages over ten yards per reception and runs routes very well from the backfield. He's a clear mismatch for either of the starters, Keith Brooking or Bradie James and nickel linebacker Bobby Carpenter. Threse three will earn their money if they can tackle consistenly and keep Peterson from breaking a tackle and turning a six yard circle route into a 25 yard dagger through the middle of the field.
When Favre looks farther upfield, he has a wealth of targets. 6'4" Sidney Rice blossomed this year, and made Vikings fans forget Troy Williamson. He plays a Vincent Jackson type game. He has great size and leaping ability and Favre trusts him to win jump balls, because Rice wins more than his fair share. The Cowboys corners need to be alert because Favre will force passes high their way, trusting Rice to catch them. They'll have their chance for a pick or two on these throws, but stopping Rice has been easier said than done this year.
On the opposite side, Minnesota starts speedster Bernard Berrian, who stretches the field for Rice and rookie sensation Percy Harvin. Harvin has played the slot in Minnesota's three WR sets and is very good going over the middle. The Packers could not stop him in the two Vikings wins. Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Sensabaugh will likely take turns shadowing Harvin, depending on the coverage. Sensabaugh was outstanding last week in denying DeSean Jackson space on shallow crosses. Receivers had hurt Dallas with this early on, but Sensabaugh was able to run with Jackson laterally, giving the rush time to force Donovan McNabb to look elsewhere.
The biggest question here is how much Wade Phillips will blitz Favre? Dallas has been very effective the last six or seven weeks rushing only four men, as Anthony Spencer has notched six sacks in that span. He, Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and nickel DT Stephen Bowen have all been effective at pressuring quarterbacks. Because the Vikings have a potent rushing attack, I don't expect to see the nickel on early downs; the Cowboys used it a lot to challenge Philly's no huddle attack.
On the other hand, Phillips blitzed Favre fiercely in the November '07 matchup when Favre quarterbacked the Packers. That Green Bay team used a lot of spread sets and Wade was not afraid of playing man and daring Favre to beat his blitzes. Favre repeatedly forced passes into deep coverage before a corner blitz by Nate Jones knocked him out in the 2nd quarter.
Favre is still quite accurate throwing on the run going to his right, so I look for some inside linebacker blitzes and some corner blitzes off the right slot to made Favre move laterally. He's not so good when he's hurried in the pocket or flushed left.
Don't look for Phillips to go blitz crazy, however. Favre is still the master at the late dump off, something Tony Romo does very well. Because Minnesota runs a purer West Coast offense, they use a lot more bootlegs. which are deadly against teams which blitz too hard and expose their flanks. Dallas does not want to put too much of this game on the inside linebackers chasing Jim Kleinsasser and Visanthe Shiancoe in the flats. Favre will play ball control, if that's what he's given.
When Dallas Has the Ball
The Vikings play a most straight 4-3 which depends on the front four to generate pressure. The Vikings do not blitz very much. They don't have to, because their front four has generated 31 of their league-leading 48 sacks. As with Dallas, the pressure comes off the ends and from one pressure tackle. Right end Jared Allen had another strong year, bagging QBs 14.5 times. Fellow end Ray Edwards chipped in 8.5 of his own.
Minnesota has two mammoth defensive tackles in slant tackle Pat Williams, who lists at 315 but is probably much closer to 345 and under tackle Kevin Williams, who added 6 sacks pressing up the middle. The Vikings rush starts with Allen, so containing him will go a long way towards getting the Cowboys offensive attack off the ground. LT Flozell Adams has been solid against Washington's Andre Carter and Philly's Trent Cole in recent weeks, but the last time Dallas played in a dome, Adams gave up two sacks to Saints RE Will Smith. Look for Dallas to give Adams some help with chips and blocking from tight ends. The Metrodome will be just as noisy as the Superdome and Adams is likely to be slow off the silent count on some plays.
The Vikings have a top rush defense, but the Cowboys will test it. Teams have trouble running inside at the Williams and MLB Jasper Brinkley, a 252 lb. fire hydrant in the Jeremiah Trotter role. Look for Dallas to stay with their stock delays and counters, but to shift their emphasis one gap outside and attack the ends. Against the Redskins, who have Big Albert Haynesworth inside and London Fletcher behind him, Dallas ran delayed power -- a freeze action play which looks like play action, but which pulls the weakside guard to lead Felix Jones to the perimeter.
The play worked effectively because the freeze action held the linebackers in space and because Jason Witten was very good at hooking the DE on his side inside. Kosier would pull and seal the MLB and Jones was able to get some big gains.
Dallas also called a lot of straight off tackle plays to the strong side, again counting on Witten to seal the end and the lead blocker, be it John Phillips or Deon Anderson, to clean up the strong-side backer.
Dallas is counting on the Vikings ends to play an aggressive up-the-field game and take themselves out of some plays. The Cowboys also figure their TEs have the bulk to block Edwards and Allen one-on-one. Edwards is 270 while Allen is 265. Witten is 263 lbs. while Martellus Bennett lists at 266. Phillips, a tough lead blocker, lists at 255.
The Cowboys game plan will likely center around attacking Brinkley. He's big and can stuff inside runs, but he cannot run well in space. The Cowboys will see if he can chase powers, off-tackles and tosses to the edges and get through the pulling guards. If he can't the Vikings will have to bring a safety up to offer help.
They would rather not do that since they are a zone team, and their star cornerback, Antoine Winfield, has been hobbled the last seven weeks with a foot injury. The Vikings say he's ready to go after the bye, but he's 5'9" and possibly gimpy. The Cowboys will test him, with Roy Williams slants, stop fades and Miles Austin moves up the middle.
If the Vikings are playing their usual coverages the bigger calls will come in the middle of the field. Dallas will no doubt send Witten up the field on seams and deep ins to challenge Brinkley and SS Tyrell Johnson. If Dallas can get tight ends on Brinkley it will get big plays. Also look for more plays running Patrick Crayton into the middle of the Vikings zone, between the layers and in front of the safeties.
Minnesota might challenge Dallas to play more ball control, a tactic the Redskins used very effectively in their two games. Dallas swept them but scored only 24 points. Dallas showed it could move the ball effectively against zones, in the second Washington game and in the season finale, where the Eagles played a lot of zone. The key will be pre-red zone football, the area from roughly the Vikings 40 to the 20. The Cowboys struggled here, turning the ball over twice on downs against Washington because it could not convert 3rd-and-short or 4th-and-short runs,
The Cowboys also saw two early drives short-circuit here last week due to sacks. As readers of this site know, sacks are drive killers for this offense.
The team with the better return game can win it. Harvin has a league-best 27.5 kickoff return average, so David Buehler will face pressure to put any kickoff deep. Harvin probably won the second Packers game with his returns. On the flip side, the Vikings kickoff coverage team has struggled of late. The Bears ripped three long returns in their overtime win over Minnesota last month. Felix Jones has been close to breaking a big return the last month and this would be the perfect time to execute it.