Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings Week 6 Game Day Manifesto
I’m not one to erroneously label a game as a “must win” unless, mathematically, a team actually must win it to stay alive.
Mathematically, this game is not a “must win” for Dallas. Emotionally, however, it might be just that. Can this team truly come back from a 1-4 start to make the playoffs (and not just make the post-season, but win there)? Of course it’s possible, but realistically, this week’s game in Minnesota is about as close to “must win” as it gets in Week Six.
The Vikings are in a similar position and have the advantage of playing at home. Can Dallas, who got blown out in Minnesota last year, exceed the Vikings’ intensity and execution?
What to Watch
How will the Cowboys defend Randy Moss?
The big question here is which player the Cowboys’ defense will prioritize: Moss or Adrian Peterson. Dallas could find themselves in quite a predicament because if they play a safe zone to limit Moss, A.P. could potentially run all over them. Meanwhile, if they bring an extra defender or two into the box in an attempt to halt Peterson, they risk yielding the quick score to Moss. This will be the key to the game.
Can the Cowboys’ offensive line hold up against a defensive line that demolished them in the playoffs a year ago?
The Vikings don’t blitz often, and their ability to put pressure on the quarterback with just four rushers is what makes their defense so difficult to attack. It is actually a poor match-up for Dallas, as Tony Romo thrives against the blitz. The Vikings will probably drop seven men into coverage on most plays. They’ll also be likely to fake blitzes, as the Redskins, Bears, and Titans have all found success when confusing Romo pre-snap.
Will Dallas strive for offensive balance against a Minnesota defense that is stout against the run?
I really hope Jason Garrett doesn’t give into the demands of a impatient fan base that is growing restless. Everybody and their brother wants Garrett to run the ball more. Well, everyone except me. The Cowboys need to run the ball efficiently to set up what they do best: throw the football and create big plays in the passing game.
People seek offensive balance and note the correlation between rushing yards and winning percentage, not realizing that a large chunk of rushing yards are acquired only after the winning team has gained a lead.
A perfect example is the Cowboys-Texans game, when the Cowboys came out throwing (and running efficiently), even passing on 21 of 28 plays in the middle of the game. They ran the ball at the end of the contest only because they had a large lead, and the old-school rushing proponents came out of the woodwork to let us know what “really” wins games.
Well, what really wins games, folks, is effectively passing the football, and rushing the ball only matters insofar as it is able to set up the pass. “Offensive balance” is an ex post facto misnomer.
Will the Cowboys use last year’s playoff loss as motivation to play well?
Let’s sure hope so. If the ‘Boys can’t find motivation to play well during this game, there is simply no hope for them. They are 1-3 and if they lose this week, the season is all but over. They’re travelling to play a team that, with a 27-3 lead and two minutes left in last year’s playoff game, chose to throw the football on fourth and short.
Go to the 4:00 mark below for a reminder of how classless this Vikings team can be.
Can the ‘Boys, who have looked rather undisciplined through the first quarter of the season, limit their penalties and turnovers?
It’s no secret that the Cowboys are 1-3 not because of a lack of talent, but rather undisciplined play. Under Wade Phillips, this team has committed the second-most penalties in the NFL. I know Phillips can only control the players to an extent, but the fact that this trend hasn’t “regressed to the norm” yet makes me believe what we are witnessing, at least under Phillips, already is the norm.
I’m also convinced that Phillips’ defensive scheme, while successful, is one that is not suited to create a lot of turnovers. It creates an aggressive style of play from the front seven with generally “safe” coverage behind the rushers. If DeMarcus Ware & Co. can’t force a fumble, it is difficult for the secondary to reel in interceptions when they are so conscious of limiting big plays.
Surely the Cowboys could find more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball as well, and I’m not saying Phillips’ scheme is the “wrong” one, but until the Cowboys create more turnovers, they won’t be a playoff-type squad.
Can Orlando Scandrick hold up in the slot against Percy Harvin?
The Cowboys’ decision to prioritize Moss or Peterson may be the key to the game, but Harvin is the X-Factor. In my opinion, he stands to benefit most from Moss’ arrival in Minnesota, and you may have seen that with his two touchdowns on Monday night.
Scandrick has struggled this year. I gave him a “D+” in my Quarter-Season Player Grades–the lowest grade for any player. He’s going to have to have his best game of the season to contain Harvin. Whether the Cowboys shadow Moss or put extra defenders in the box to stop Peterson, Scandrick is going to be in a lot of man coverage.
DOs and DON’Ts
DO focus on stopping Adrian Peterson first, and Randy Moss second.
There are a few reasons the Cowboys need to focus on All Day before Moss. First, Moss still doesn’t know the entire offense. He was lost last week in the Vikings’ two-minute drill, saying that he was told “when in doubt, just run a go.” Even with another week in the offense, Moss won’t be 100 percent comfortable with the playbook.
Second, the success of Peterson would eventually create big plays for Moss. There are ways to defend Peterson without bringing 10 guys near the line of scrimmage, but if the Cowboys can’t stop A.P. with seven or eight players down, they are going to have big trouble defending Moss.
I personally think the Cowboys should play a lot of “Cover 1.”
Cover 1 is basically man coverage underneath with a free safety deep. That safety (Alan Ball) should shadow Moss during basically every play. With Terence Newman or Mike Jenkins underneath and Ball deep, the ‘Boys should be able to limit Moss’ big play potential.
Cover 1 also allows a defense to be very flexible with their pre-snap alignment. The Cowboys can bring eight guys into the box without much risk while in Cover 1 in an effort to be ready to stop Peterson. Peterson should be the No. 1 priority, and if Dallas stops him, they can stop Moss as well.
Finally, there’s very little downside to playing man coverage underneath against the Vikings. Not only are the Cowboys’ cornerbacks suited for man-to-man, but Brett Favre isn’t going to be running anywhere. The idea of a bunch of defenders with their backs turned to the quarterback isn’t as scary as if, say, Michael Vick was at quarterback.
DON’T blitz often.
It will be imperative for the Cowboys to get pressure on Favre with just four rushers. The old guy can become uncomfortable if he gets hit early, but the ‘Boys can’t risk sending six guys and having Peterson squirt through into the open field or Moss beat them deep for a quick score.
Plus, the Cowboys’ blitzes are way, way too obvious.
DO run draws and counters at Jared Allen and Ray Edwards in an attempt to stay away from the “Williams Wall.”
The Vikings’ pass rush is incredible, particularly on the outside of their defensive line. Allen and Edwards get a ton of pressure on the quarterback despite the fact that the Vikings rarely blitz.
Some of their success comes because they are very eager to rush upfield, however. Thus, the Cowboys’ famous draw play could be of use this week, as a pass look could cause Allen and Edwards to get upfield and Jones/Barber/Choice can run right to the vacancy.
The Cowboys have run only 17 draws all year for 80 yards (4.7 yards-per-carry). That’s about half of the 2009 draw rate, which is a good thing. I talked previously about how decreasing the frequency of draw plays can increase their efficiency (and despite a lack of overall success on the ground this year, the yards-per-carry on draw plays is up).
Plus, running outside (with counters, powers, and some draws) will allow the Cowboys to stay away from Pat and Kevin Williams–the league’s top run-stuffing defensive tackle duo (by far).
Finally, the Cowboys should attempt to run away from cornerback Antoine Winfield. He’s one of the league’s top cornerbacks in terms of run defense, and if all things are equal, running to the opposite side of the field would be prudent.
DON’T run many tosses.
This is related to the above “DO.” With the Minnesota defensive ends rushing upfield, tosses will not work. Why lead the running back directly into the path of an angry Jared Allen?
DON’T listen to outside concerns about offensive balance–throw the ball early to set up the run late.
Like I said above, the Cowboys don’t need to be concerned with running the ball frequently, they need to be concerned about running it efficiently. The running game can set up the pass, but the opposite is just as true. If the offensive line can provide proper protection for Romo to find some early success through the air, the ‘Boys should find it easier to run the football. That, in turn, can set up even bigger plays in the pass game later.
DO take advantage of Vikings blitzes.
When the Vikings do blitz, Dallas needs to be prepared. Minnesota often finds success with their blitz packages because they catch offenses off-guard. Staying disciplined, as we have seen, is not a strong point for Dallas.
Further, the Vikings love to run twists in place of blitzes. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have struggled mightily against stunts and twists this year. Intelligent, disciplined football is a must this week.
DON’T use three-receiver sets as often this week.
I generally support the idea of three-receiver sets, but this week I think Dallas should use a lot of two-tight end looks. While it is true that Minnesota is weak in the secondary, their nickel cornerback (Lito Sheppard) is nearly as talented as starters Antoine Winfield and Asher Allen. The Cowboys can find success in the passing game without implementing three-receiver sets.
Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten should be able to take advantage of whoever the Vikings place on them: whether it is linebackers Chad Greenway or Ben Leber, or safety Eric Frampton.
Plus, Bennett offers additional pass protection. There’s a reason Bennett received one of my highest grades for the first four games.
DO get Keith Brooking off of the field in nickel situations.
I love Brooking, but he’s been horrid against the pass this season. He struggles to make plays out in space against more athletic tight ends and running backs.
I liked what I saw out of safety Danny McCray last week, and I think he should receive the majority of the nickel linebacker reps.
DON’T call an excessive amount of audibles, unless they are “Kill” calls.
We all saw last year how deafening it can be inside the Vikings’ dome. True audibles in which Romo calls an entirely new play at the line of scrimmage will be nearly impossible, particularly due to how long the Cowboys take in the huddle.
Instead, all checks will need to be “Kill” calls (which they generally are anyway). A “Kill” call is made by Romo at the line of scrimmage with one simple motion and notifies the rest of the offense to disregard the first play called in the huddle and to run the second one.
DON’T play so robotically on defense.
I just responded to a reader’s comment with this short note:
I’m not sure what is going on with Phillips either. I am generally a big proponent of maintaining composure and playing smart football (and I think the offense always needs to do that), but I think it would be smart for the defense to come out with an ultra-aggressive “in-your-face” attitude this week. It might just be me, but it seems as though they are playing robotically. Football is a cerebral game, but the studying and calculated behavior needs to be completed during the week so that football players can go out and just play football. They need to regain that fire and just fly around and have a good time.
DO get the ball to Felix Jones–but not at the expense of Tashard Choice.
I’m not sure how many of you noticed, but Choice played all of one snap last week. That one play was a “Power I” look with all three running backs on the field together. While the Wildcat might not be a good idea this week against Minnesota’s run defense, Felix Jones’ extra snaps (which are imperative) should come at the expense of Marion Barber, not Choice.
I suggest the Cowboys use Choice as their short-yardage and “change-of-pace” back. He’s quick enough to evade the first defender, while Barber’s days of explosive, powerful runs seem to be all but over. Barber does well in pass protection and as a receiver, so leaving him as a third down/late-game running back would be best.