Maybe you’ve heard it mentioned before, but the Cowboys are good at offense this year. On Sunday night, they’ll face arguably their biggest challenge of the year so far in the Vikings defense. Led by head coach and defensive play-caller Mike Zimmer, the Vikings have consistently enjoyed top-tier defenses the last few years.
Nothing has changed this year. Minnesota currently ranks eighth in total yards allowed per game, eighth in passing defense, eighth in rushing defense, and fourth in points allowed. That these figures are considered average by Vikings fans speaks volumes to the standard that Zimmer has brought to this franchise.
The Vikings are also very efficient on the defensive end, as well. They have a DVOA of -7.7%, good for seventh in the league, and are ninth in both pass and run defense as well. Out of all the teams with a negative defensive DVOA (which is a good thing for defenses), Minnesota is the only one whose run defense and pass defense are more or less equal to each other. In short, this defense doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, and in order to beat them you just have to be really, really good.
So what makes this defense so good? While Minnesota certainly has its fair share of great players, it all starts with Zimmer. Having created dominant defenses nearly everywhere he worked as a defensive coordinator, including six seasons in Dallas, Zimmer is one of the league’s greatest defensive minds. He runs a very similar defensive scheme to what Dallas does, but is a bit more creative and exotic in the looks he shows.
At its core, Zimmer’s defense is a 4-3 base that frequently uses nickel packages. It involves a pass rush that’s designed primarily for the defensive line, linebackers that have to clean up after the defensive line, and physical cornerbacks. But there are key differences here and there that make Zimmer stand out. Unlike Dallas, Zimmer primarily uses press man coverage and Cover 2 when they switch to zone; in fact, per ESPN’s Seth Walder, Minnesota runs Cover 1 man coverage on 28% of their plays and Cover 2 zone 31% of the time, the second-highest rate for Cover 2 in the league.
Part of what allows Zimmer to use these coverages is his personnel. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are two exceptional safeties with penchants for takeaways - they have six total between them this season - and their natural skills allow for greater range in pass coverage. Additionally, Zimmer has two of the most underrated edge rushers in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, who have 14 sacks between them so far.
And just for good measure, Zimmer mixes in lots of stunts for his defensive linemen, as well as exotic, well-disguised blitzes. It’s not uncommon for the Vikings to line up showing a double A-gap blitz with their two linebackers, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks (more on those two in a moment), and then drop them into coverage while bringing a cornerback or safety off the edge. Zimmer is a master at situational play-calling on defense, knowing exactly when to call a certain blitz or fake another, and having such a talented defense makes it a tad bit easier too.
The linebacking duo of Barr and Kendricks are also huge for this defense. Kendricks leads the team in tackles and passes defensed, highlighting his ability to make plays both in run defense and in shallow middle of the field zone coverage when Cover 2 shells come up. Barr, on the other hand, is a wrecking ball that can function as a blitzer or sideline-to-sideline defender, not unlike Jaylon Smith.
But two undervalued cogs in this defense are dealing with injuries this week. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who’s the team’s leading interior rusher and run stopper in the trenches, will not be playing Sunday night. The Vikings don’t have a whole lot of experienced depth at defensive tackle, so the middle of the line of scrimmage could be one area of weakness for the Cowboys to try and exploit, especially with Travis Frederick and Zack Martin manning that area.
Additionally, the Vikings’ number two cornerback, Trae Waynes, is expected to play despite an ankle injury that kept him out of practice the final two days. Given Zimmer’s penchant for playing lots of press man coverage, the Cowboys could look to get Amari Cooper matched up with Waynes so that Coop’s near-perfect route running can create a coverage mismatch.
Aside from that, the Vikings’ high usage of Cover 2 creates opportunities down the seam for either receivers out of the slot or tight ends (ahem, Blake Jarwin) and if the Cowboys are able to use their talented receiver duo of Cooper and Michael Gallup to stretch the safeties out along the boundary, it could be open season over the middle of the field for whoever is open (ahem, Blake Jarwin!!).
At the end of the day, though, Zimmer cannot be underestimated, nor can this defensive personnel. Kellen Moore will have his work cut out for him going up against such an experienced play-caller. The Cowboys offense has been extremely successful so far this year, but they’ve yet to face a defense of this caliber. We’ll see if they’re able to rise to the occasion and prove just how good they are.