The Cowboys made a move during the bye week by trading for Michael Bennett. Best described as a disruptive force in every aspect, Bennett showed his worth in his first game for Dallas by wreaking havoc on the Giants all night.
Bennett’s most noticeable contribution was as a pass rusher, finishing with a sack and four hits on rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, but he also routinely broke through the line of scrimmage on run plays forcing Saquon Barkley to redirect his path. He even brought down the insanely-talented rusher in the backfield on this play:
Ahhh Michael Bennett blowing up a run play, memories pic.twitter.com/7RDLuUfifv— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) November 5, 2019
All told, Bennett and the rest of this defense held Barkley to 28 rushing yards on 14 carries, and the Giants as a whole were limited to 100 total rushing yards. It was such a good performance that the Cowboys’ much-maligned run defense improved to 15th in the league in DVOA against the run, a two-spot jump in the rankings. And coming against a running back that consistently draws comparisons to Barry Sanders, that’s something.
But the real test for this improved run defense comes Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings. Their running back, Dalvin Cook, leads the league in rushing with 894 yards and is second in touchdowns with nine. Under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and offensive adviser Gary Kubiak, the Vikings have created an offense that’s very similar in philosophy to the one Kyle Shanahan has ridden to a perfect 8-0 start in San Francisco.
The difference for Minnesota is they have a workhorse back in Cook that has been exploiting defenses left and right this year. He’s run for 100+ yards in five of the Vikings’ nine games so far, with his only poor performances coming against the Bears (who have a great defense) and the Eagles (who enjoyed a great run defense at the time).
But it’s not just Cook that makes this rushing attack so potent. Backup Alexander Mattison has cleaned up in his role as a change of pace back, with 337 yards on 71 carries. The rookie out of Boise State has been especially effective in the last four games, where he’s put up 148 yards on just 37 carries.
Between Cook and Mattison, the Vikings have run their way to the NFL’s eighth most efficient rushing attack with a +2.2% DVOA, and it’s powered the team to a 6-3 start to their season. More than that, the running game has taken pressure off of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who’s on pace to throw nearly 10 less passes per game than last year while posting better yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, passer rating, and QBR.
Despite all of the analytics that suggest it’s better to have a pass-first offense, the Vikings have bucked the trend and become an exception to the rule with their run-heavy offense. And that’s exactly why the Cowboys defense will face their biggest test of the year so far.
Minnesota is already averaging over 32 carries per game, and with news surfacing that the Vikings will likely be without star wide receiver Adam Thielen this week, expect Cook and Mattison to get even more work. Not to take anything away from Cousins, who’s having a fine season, but the Cowboys will need to stop the run like they did against the Giants if they want to beat the Vikings.
It’ll be a test of this defensive line in the wake of their acquisition of Bennett, as well as a chance for the Cowboys to get their first win over a team with a winning record this year. Can they measure up to the challenge, or will the run defense revert to the easily-exploited unit we saw before the bye week?