Earlier we broke down why the Vikings and their old-school, yet efficient, offensive approach would be a tough challenge for the Cowboys defense. Between a strong running game powered by Dalvin Cook and supplemented by Alexander Mattison, and an efficient passing game, led by Kirk Cousins, built off of that ground attack, this is an offense that’s tough to stifle. They’ve only failed to score 21+ points in a game three times this season, with two of them resulting in losses.
So what’s the secret to stopping this offense? Put simply, it boils down to shutting down the run. Two of Minnesota’s three losses came in games where the team failed to accumulate 100 total rushing yards, instead asking Cousins to throw more than he’s used to. And the one loss where the Vikings did have a successful rushing attack saw Cousins turn it over three times. So if the Cowboys can force Cousins to shoulder the load, odds are likely that Dallas can get a win.
This is easier said than done, though. It’ll take some creativity and a lot of blitzes off the edge, which we saw defensive play-caller Kris Richard utilize at an unusually high rate on Monday night against the Giants. Doing so will exploit this offense’s biggest weakness: its offensive line. The Vikings currently rank 11th in pass block win rate, but will be going against a Cowboys front that ranks second in pass rush win rate, mostly due to their defensive line’s ability to generate pressure (DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Maliek Collins are all top ten at their position in pass rush win rate).
The Vikings’ success in pass protection has been average, as Football Outsiders ranks them 15th, allowing a sack on nearly 7% of all pass plays. Most of their protection has come from the two offensive tackles, Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill; Pro Football Focus has them both in the top 35 offensive tackles this year. However, the interior of the line has been the problem. This is where the aforementioned success of the defensive line, now including Michael Bennett, can make an impact.
But by mixing in a high frequency of outside blitzes, the Cowboys can overwhelm and isolate the Vikings’ offensive tackles, putting even more pressure on the interior offensive line. There are several different ways that Dallas can do this. The biggest blitzer for Dallas has been Jaylon Smith, and he’s been highly effective at it: Smith has blitzed 21 times this season, and has generated four pressures and two and a half sacks off of it.
The next two most common blitzers have been Leighton Vander Esch and Jeff Heath, both of whom have an uncertain status for Sunday night’s game. Neither has been particularly effective though, with both blitzing 15 times and generating a combined four pressures and a half sack. If those two aren’t ready to go, their backups are more than capable. Sean Lee and Darian Thompson both looked impressive against the Giants and could fill in well here as well.
But the biggest source of pressure could, and perhaps should, come from the cornerbacks. Richard doesn’t usually send his corners on blitzes, as both Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie have one blitz each this year, but this game could be the perfect matchup to do so. The pure speed and athleticism of Jones makes him an intriguing blitzer off the edge, and Jourdan Lewis already has a sack this year on one of his blitzes.
Not only would this strategy target the weaknesses of the Minnesota offensive line and hurry Cousins - whose worst performances this year came against blitz-heavy schemes - but it could counteract the running game, too. Under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and offensive adviser Gary Kubiak, the Vikings have based their rushing attack around the outside zone run, which takes advantage of their good offensive tackles and mitigates the deficiencies of the interior linemen. Crowding the edge with blitzers can take away those lanes, especially if the blitzes come from cornerbacks. The question at that point is whether the corners can make the tackle, but the trio of Jones, Awuzie, and Lewis have only five missed tackles between them this year.
The final reason why this strategy is so well suited for this opponent is because of the pass coverage that it would take to match up against these receivers. Minnesota already runs 64% of their plays out of formations with two wide receivers or less, and with Adam Thielen likely to miss the game, the Vikings aren’t likely to roll out a whole lot of three-receiver sets this week. This gives Dallas the freedom to send a cornerback or linebacker on a blitz without giving Minnesota favorable numbers between receivers and defensive backs.
If the Cowboys can crowd the edge and take away the outside zone run that Cook and Mattison have excelled at, it’ll make the offense one-dimensional, and that’s usually a recipe for success against this team. Considering that the Cowboys’ offense will be facing a loaded defense, Dallas may need to shut down Cousins and this unit in order to win.