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 defensive personnel.
Despite the fact that the Vikings offense has been horrendous for about two months now the team is still in contention for the playoffs in large part thanks to the defense, and especially the defensive line. They have a deep group of pass rushers, including 2015 Pro Bowler Everson Griffin, 2015 third-round pick Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison, as well as Anthony Barr, who is technically a linebacker but in nickel and dime situations he can put his hand down and function as an edge rusher. Griffin and Hunter are one of the better pass-rushing duos in the league, combining for 13.5 sacks so far this year after racking up 16.5 in 2015. Hunter is more of a pass-rush specialist while Griffin, listed at 6-3, 273 lbs., plays almost every down for the Vikings, providing excellent run defense to go with his pass rush. Ten-year veteran Brian Robison is another credible edge-rushing threat with five sacks on the season, and while he isn’t as good of a pass-rusher as Hunter, he generally plays more snaps due to his ability against the run. Robison has never been a truly dynamic presence off the edge, although he will give you about five to eight sacks a year, along with strong run defense.
On the interior the Vikings have a three-man rotation of Linval Joseph, one of the best run defenders in the league, Tom Johnson, and Shamar Stephen. At 6-4, 329 lbs. Joseph is not just stout against the run, but he is also able to push the pocket as he plays with great strength and surprising agility, posting three sacks so far in 2016 and 15.5 since entering the league in 2010. Johnson functions more as a 3-technique as he doesn’t have imposing size, listed at just 6-3, 288 lbs., although he isn’t a liability against the run. Johnson has only two sacks so far in 2016, although he combined for 12 in 2014 and 2015. He is the best pass-rusher on the team as far as pure defensive tackles go. Stephen is excellent against the run, although he doesn’t provide much rushing the passer. Each of these three receive roughly the same amount of snaps per game, although Joseph generally tends to stay on the field more than the other two. Former 2013 first-round pick Shariff Floyd hasn’t played since Week 1 due to a knee injury, he won’t play Thursday.
This unit is led by two UCLA alumni; the ninth-overall pick in 2014 and 2015 Pro Bowler, Anthony Barr, as well as 2015 second-round pick Eric Kendricks. Barr lines up as a strong-side linebacker in the Vikings 4-3 scheme, although he played defensive end in college, and at 6-5, 255 lbs. he is more of a 3-4 OLB, or a 4-3 DE than a pure 4-3 linebacker. Barr has transitioned well into playing more of a pure linebacker role, providing strong run defense and holding up against the pass in base situations, although in nickel and dime they use Barr as a versatile pass-rusher, lining him up with his hand down at times and blitzing him at others. He only has 9.5 sacks over his first three seasons, but he will almost certainly be one of the focal points of the Cowboys gameplan.
Kendricks on the other hand is the best pure three-down linebacker on the Vikings roster. He is excellent against the pass (eight pass deflections and a pick-six so far in 2016), while also providing strong defense and some blitzing ability (four sacks as a rookie). Kendricks has struggled recently with a hip injury that has had him in and out of the lineup, although I think he is one of the best up-and-coming pure linebackers in the league who in many ways makes this defense go. The Vikings defense is a different unit when he is on the field.
Long-time Viking and former Pro Bowler Chad Greenway will spell Kendricks at times, especially when he isn’t at 100%, although at 33 years of age Greenway is now only a replacement-level player.
This unit is led by 2015 Pro Bowler Harrison Smith at safety and Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013 who has established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the league in a breakout 2016. Smith is one of the best and most versatile safeties in the league, tallying 12 interceptions to go along with 7.5 sacks since entering the league in 2012. Smith is able to play coverage as a deep centerfielder or he can be dangerous in the box as he is physical against the run and a very good blitzer. He has yet to record an interception this season although he leads the team in tackles and has two sacks. Smith is not quite yet on the same level as Earl Thomas, but he is right there with the other top safeties in the league such as Eric Berry and Tyrann Mathieu. The safety opposite Smith is Andrew Sendejo, a player who started his career as a UDFA in 2011 but has worked his way up from a special-teamer to an entrenched starter. He isn’t much of a playmaker with only four career interceptions, one sack and one forced fumble since entering the league, but he plays assignment-sound football and it must be noted that two of those interceptions have come in 2016.
After a slow start to his career the aforementioned Rhodes has broken out this season and could be having the best season of any cornerback in the league. At 6-1, 218 lbs. Rhodes fits the new prototype of the big, physical corner with long arms that can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and completely throw off the timing of routes. After logging only two interceptions over his first three years Rhodes has four so far in 2016, including a 100-yard pick-six against Arizona. Rhodes is a lock to make his first Pro Bowl and it’s likely that he ends up being First Team All-Pro. Watching him matchup with Dez Bryant should be truly entertaining.
The starter opposite Rhodes is someone Cowboys fans should be familiar with, a player the Cowboys used the fifth-overall pick in 2003 on, Terence Newman. At 38 years of age Newman is somehow still playing at a reasonably decent level, logging three interceptions and 12 pass deflections in 2015, as well as one interception and seven pass deflections so far in 2016. Newman missed the Thanksgiving Day game with a neck injury, and if he can’t go Thursday he will be replaced by Trae Waynes, the 11th-overall pick in 2015. Waynes has been up and down since entering the league, at times he will look great in coverage while at others he gets beaten like a drum, and he has a propensity for drawing flags as he can get too aggressive with his hands. Whether or not Newman plays, this should be a spot the Cowboys look to take advantage of with a player of Rhodes’ caliber on the other side. Regardless of the status of Newman the Vikings slot corner is Captain Munnerlyn, who is one of the better players at that position in the league. He is a physical player who isn’t particularly suited to playing outside at just 5-9, but he does a very good job of working in space against smaller, shiftier receivers. Overall, this is one of the top secondaries in the league, evidenced by the fact that they rank fourth in the league in passing yards allowed and third in interceptions.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Good run defense but a so-so group of defensive tackles behind Linval Joseph. The Vikings defensive line rotation really only consists of six linemen, so if the Cowboys offense can sustain drives their defense should wear down
- The cornerback opposite Rhodes, whether it is Newman or Waynes
- Kendricks is the Vikings only true three-down linebacker, if he is out or playing at less than 100% the middle of the field should be an area the Cowboys can attack
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Talented group of edge-rushers, along with a stalwart in the middle of the line in Joseph
- Arguably the best secondary in the league
- Playmakers at all three levels, there is a reason this defense ranks in the top ten in total yards allowed, points allowed, passing yards allowed, interceptions, and sacks. The one area where their defense is mediocre is in run defense, which is unfortunate for the Vikings in this particular match-up