Week 13 takes the Cowboys to brand new U.S. Bank Stadium to take on their third NFC North opponent of the season, the Minnesota Vikings. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their offensive personnel.
After Teddy Bridgewater suffered a devastating knee injury during a practice just a few weeks before the start of the season the Vikings gave up a multitude of picks in a trade for Sam Bradford. Most would call the trade a desperation move, but the Vikings felt they had a team capable of competing for the Super Bowl, with an excellent defense and a running game led by future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. They gambled on the advice and history that then quarterbacks coach, now offensive cordinator, Pat Shumur, has with Bradford, as he coached him with both the Rams and the Eagles. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Bradford’s 2016 play is reminiscent of his times with those two teams, which is to say that it hasn’t been very good.
Despite somewhat impressive stats on the year Bradford has been largely ineffective, although it must be noted that much of that has to do with an injury to Peterson early in the year, leaving them with no running game, and the fact that their offensive line may be the worst in the league after suffering several injuries. Bradford has 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions, along with an impressive 71.3% completion percentage, although much of that is because he almost never attacks downfield and will generally always favor the low-risk, low-reward check down. Bradford’s greatest asset is his accuracy in the short to intermediate, but you can only be so effective without challenging defenses downfield. He has average arm strength and some functional mobility on designed movement, but for the most part his mobility within the pocket is poor as he doesn’t have great pocket presence and fails to consistently feel the pass rush. If he feels pressure and gets hit a few times he will start to watch the rush and his performance drops significantly. All in all, there isn’t much to fear with Bradford, especially if he is forced to play from behind. He has only thrown for 300+ yards once this year (on 40 attempts) and has only thrown more than one touchdown three times out of 10 games. He will complete a high percentage of passes due to how often he checks down, but a five-yard completion on third and eight isn’t scaring anybody.
Running Backs, Receivers, and Tight Ends
The Vikings don’t have many significant threats at the skill positions following the Peterson injury. The Cowboys defensive game plan will likely center around a trio of Vikings receivers; 2015 fourth-round pick out of Maryland, Stefon Diggs, former UDFA Adam Thielen, and veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph. Diggs is the Vikings best receiver, and while he missed the Thanksgiving Day game due to a knee injury it is likely that he will return for Thursday’s game. He currently leads the team in both receptions (67) and receiving yards (747), and he is the only big play threat on the team. Diggs has fantastic speed and run after the catch ability, although thanks to Bradford’s propensity to check down he doesn’t get much of a chance to take the top off of defenses, averaging only 11.1 YPC. The Cowboys will have to be sound in their tackling once Diggs gets the ball in his hands since he has impressive run after the catch ability, and if the Vikings are to attack deep in the passing game, it’ll undoubtedly be to Diggs.
Thielen is the Vikings second leading receiver with 571 yards, although he is mostly a possession receiver that lacks big play ability. He is similar to Cole Beasley in that he does a good job of finding open space across the middle and working side-to-side across the field, although he isn’t much of a downfield threat. Cordarrelle Patterson is the Vikings third receiver, and while he averages less than 9 YPC, he must be accounted for as he has great run after the catch ability. Patterson has been a disappointment after the team used made him the 29th-overall pick in 2013 as he has never fully developed into a refined receiver, although the Vikings love to use him on receiver screens where he acts almost as a punt returner and can use his run after the catch ability.
At tight end Rudolph is a big-bodied veteran who is Bradford’s preferred red zone target, leading the team with five touchdowns on the season, and while he isn’t quite in the elite echelon of tight ends, he is in the tier below. He is an old-fashioned inline tight end who is a very good blocker but is still able to threaten defenses in the middle of the field and up the seam. He only has 468 yards on the year and averages less than 10 YPC, although with better quarterback play I believe he could be one of the top tight ends in the league. Rudolph is probably the biggest threat in the passing game after Diggs.
With Peterson on the sideline the Vikings employ a timeshare between Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. Asiata is more of a physical, between the tackles runner who generally gets the goal-line carries with five touchdowns on the season compared to just one for McKinnon, who is the faster, more explosive player. They receive basically an equal amount of touches per game, although neither is particularly effective. In tandem the two have combined for just 603 rushing yards on the season, barely averaging over 3 YPC in the process. Neither is much of a threat out of the backfield either as they have combined for just 259 receiving yards, although they have compiled 37 receptions thanks to Bradford’s propensity to check down. The Vikings rank dead last in the league in rushing yards per game, as well as yards per carry, so this should not be an area of concern for the Cowboys defense.
I’m just going to start this off by saying that this is probably the worst offensive line in the league. This was a weak unit coming into the season, although it has gotten significantly worse as the year has gone on thanks to several debilitating injuries. It all started with their best offensive lineman; left tackle Matt Kalil, going down with a hip injury following Week 1 that put him out for the season. Then starting right tackle Andre Smith was lost for the year thanks to a torn triceps a few weeks after that. If that wasn’t enough just a few weeks ago Kalil’s replacement who was signed mid-season, Jake Long, was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. On top of that, their starting center, Joe Berger, went down with a concussion in their last game against the Lions and seems unlikely to play Thursday.
So what do the Vikings have left after losing their top three tackles and starting center? Not a lot.
The strength of the line, if you could call anything on their line a strength, are the starting guards; Alex Boone on the left side and Brandon Fusco on the right side. These are the only starters remaining from the first game of the year, although neither is anything more than an average to slightly above average starting offensive lineman. Of course an average starting offensive lineman is a lot more than I can say for the rest of the line as 2015 fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings is the starter at left tackle, while Jeremiah Sirles, a third-year former UDFA, is the starter at right tackle. These two combine to form quite possibly the worst starting tackle duo in the league. If Berger is out the Vikings will start Nick Easton, a former UDFA who would be making his first career start.
There is a reason that the Vikings offense is one of the worst in the league and this offensive line is it.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Worst running game in the league
- Perhaps the worst offensive line in the league
- Quarterback that struggles immensely once he gets hit and feels pressure
- No elite talent at the skill positions
- One of the worst offenses in the league from top to bottom, if the Cowboys can jump out to a double-digit lead at any point in the game, there is likely no coming back from it for this offense
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Letting Bradford get comfortable in the pocket
- Diggs and Patterson running after the catch, both are capable of producing big plays, but with a terrible offensive line and a risk averse quarterback they don’t get many opportunities
- Rudolph and Thielen extending drives over the middle with a ball-control passing game