A quick look at a few plays from the Cowboys and Vikings game reveals that doing the little things right adds up.
Setting the tone early
Ahead of Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, there was a lot of talk from the leaders of this defense and how they needed to respond against the run. The two most vocal on the subject were Micah Parsons and Jayron Kearse, the latter describing the mood of the defense as “angry”.
Angry would be a good way to characterize the rushing style of Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Given their recent struggles, Dallas was going to have to meet the challenge that is the Vikings’ running game head-on. With a little help, Leighton Vander Esch did just that.
Vikings center Garrett Bradbury (#56) and left guard Ezra Cleveland (#72) are trying to double-team defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, lined up over Bradbury. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw’s (#71) job is to drive Dorance Armstrong, who is lined up in the B gap, out of the play and create a hole for Dalvin Cook.
Meanwhile, after shifting before the snap, receiver K.J. Osborn is supposed to be blocking off Kearse so that he can’t make the play on Cook from the other side. Osborn doesn’t get a clean block on Kearse and that does allow him to get a hand on Cook to help Vander Esch make the tackle, but watch what’s happening behind the play.
The Vikings are sending Adam Thielen in motion if for nothing else, to occupy Vander Esch’s eyes. If Vander Esch over-commits too far to his left, then very likely Cook is running downhill one-on-one with Malik Hooker. It’s at least a 10-yard gain if not a house call.
Very intelligently Vander Esch stays in the play, takes Cook on in the hole, and makes the stop for a short gain.
The Cowboys’ offensive line was outstanding against Minnesota. They provided Dak Prescott with a clean pocket and time to throw but they were also exceptional in the run game. This play isn’t flashy or meant to be shown in a highlight reel. However, it exemplifies the dominance of the offensive line and their execution.
The Vikings are lined up in a 3-4 front, three down linemen, and two stand-up outside linebackers. Za’Darius Smith is wide to the left of Tyler Smith, no doubt to set the edge, and the same for D.J. Wonnum on the opposite side.
Watch the left side of the Dallas offensive line on this play. There’s a double-team block by Tyler Biadasz and Connor McGovern on James Lynch. The refs missed it but you can be about 99% sure McGovern gets turned awkwardly like that because Lynch grabbed him to make sure he didn’t get to the second level on Jordan Hicks. It should have been an extra five yards added to the run.
The right side of the line looks even better. Check out All-Pro Zack Martin and Terence Steele. Martin locks in on the inside linebacker Eric Kendricks and Steele drives Harrison Phillips from one hash mark to the other. These blocks give Ezekiel Elliott a clear lane on the cutback. Also, a pretty nice job by Dalton Schultz blocking Jonathan Bullard on the backside. A punishing performance by the offensive line. They were like a herd of elephants on a stampede.
Prescott well protected
The Cowboys are lined up with three receivers the left side and Dalton Schultz is lined up to the right side of the formation with Pollard in the backfield. By the Vikings’ alignment, it appears that there are two deep safeties with man coverage underneath.
This entire play starts up front with the offensive line giving Dak Prescott enough time. Connor McGovern passes off James Lynch to Tyler Biadasz, to help Tyler Smith who forces the rusher past the quarterback. If you look closely, you can see where Za’Darius Smith staggers Zack Martin for a second after knocking his hands down, but Martin is able to recover his balance very quickly and the front of the pocket is clean for Prescott. There’s also Terence Steele one-on-one with Wonnum who stonewalls him. Great protection all around.
In the secondary, the Vikings have two corners lined up over Noah Brown and Michael Gallup respectively with linebacker Eric Kendricks shading over CeeDee Lamb. On the opposite side of the field, Patrick Peterson is shaded just to the outside of Dalton Schultz. Minnesota is trying to take away any throws at the sticks.
In this coverage, Minnesota is leaving Jordan Hicks responsible for the running back Tony Pollard. Judging how Hicks is looking back into the backfield, he expects Pollard to break his route flat toward the sideline. He never expected Pollard to carry his route up the field.
At that point, it’s a race to the end zone and Hicks is too slow to keep up after Prescott drops the pass over Pollard’s shoulder.