Last year, the Cowboys ended their bye week with a road trip to face the struggling Vikings in Minnesota. Dallas notched a narrow victory to earn their first win since Dak Prescott got hurt earlier in the year. While they’re once again ending their bye week by traveling to Minnesota, it’s safe to say things are very different for both teams this time around.
For starters, Prescott is still playing, and doing so at a high level. Of course, the quarterback is dealing with a calf strain suffered at the end of the Cowboys’ overtime win against the Patriots, but until otherwise noted, we’re operating under the impression that he will play. It’s no coincidence that Dak’s presence has resulted in a 5-1 start to the season for Dallas, as the team has scored 35 or more points in each of their last four games.
The Vikings, on the other hand, enter this game at 3-3 and sporting some of the worst luck of any NFL team right now. They lost their season opener to the Bengals in overtime due to a controversial replay review before losing to the Cardinals the next week courtesy of a bad miss from kicker Greg Joseph. Since their unfortunate 0-2 start, the Vikings have gone 3-1 with a narrow loss to the Browns being their only shortcoming.
This is a long way of saying this Vikings team, now in their eighth season under head coach Mike Zimmer, is better than their middling record suggests. Yet at the same time, this is a team that can’t resist beating itself. They had several chances to put away Cincinnati in Week 1 and let it go to overtime, and the missed field goal against Arizona was inexcusable. Even their last two wins - a last-second field goal to beat the winless Lions and an overtime finish over the Panthers after leading 28-17 with five minutes left in regulation - haven’t been encouraging.
All in all, this Vikings team is in many ways reminiscent of the 2019 Cowboys. They have enough talent to beat anyone, but they’re so undisciplined that they beat themselves more often than beating the other team. Zimmer’s team is tied for the ninth-most penalties against on the season - they’re tied with three teams that have all played one more game - while also having the fewest penalties in favor of them all year. In short, they’re playing sloppy against teams who play clean.
But when this team is at their best, they’re hard to top. Kirk Cousins is quietly playing great football, currently placing sixth in completion rate and eighth in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) while the offense as a whole sits at sixth place in pass DVOA and 12th in overall offensive DVOA. After injuries decimated the defense last year, Zimmer’s preferred side of the ball has rebounded nicely, currently ranking sixth in defensive DVOA and third in pass defense DVOA.
The Vikings defense features two former Cowboys in edge rusher Everson Griffen and safety Xavier Woods. Fans may be angered to know that both are playing well this year. Griffen’s four sacks and 19 pressures are second behind star pass rusher Danielle Hunter, while Woods’ 52.3 passer rating allowed is the lowest figure in this tough secondary.
But this defense is not without an Achilles heel, and that is their run defense. Only three other defenses are giving up more yards per carry right now than Minnesota. It’s a big part of why they rank 24th in run defense DVOA and 31st in run stop win rate. Given how effective the Cowboys have been at running the ball this year, and with Prescott not at 100% right now, don’t be surprised if we see Kellen Moore look to exploit that weakness Sunday.
The Vikings’ offense has a similar weakness: their run game. Zimmer prefers a run-first approach and offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak’s system is largely built off of the run game. But Dalvin Cook has been performing well below his standards this year, which has played a part in Cousins averaging the fourth-most pass attempts per game. While he’s played well overall, Cousins is notorious for cracking when pressured by defenses. Considering that Cousins is the sixth-most pressured starting quarterback right now, Dallas has an avenue by which to neutralize this offense.
The caveat is that Dan Quinn will need to decide which of Minnesota’s two receivers to put Trevon Diggs on. Adam Thielen is an elite route runner and dangerous red zone threat, while Justin Jefferson - the only rookie wide receiver to outperform CeeDee Lamb last year - is quickly blossoming into one of the best receivers in the game. Either way, this secondary will have its hands full, so getting to Cousins early is the best chance at throwing this offense out of rhythm.
In past years, this game would have all the making of one that Dallas is set up for a disappointing loss, but Mike McCarthy and his staff have proven this season that they’ll have their team ready to play by kickoff. That doesn’t guarantee a win Sunday night, but it certainly helps their chances.
We discussed all of these ideas during this week’s preview show on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel (where we operated under the assumption that Dak Prescott will be playing). You can watch it with our discussion, special guest appearance by Minnesota Vikings play-by-play announcer Paul Allen, film room observations, and more right here:
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