The last time the Vikings played the Dallas Cowboys was January in the Metrodome. The Vikings had earned a bye week and a home game. The Cowboys were the chic pick to be a team that played in the wild card round of the playoffs that could get to the Super Bowl.
Ten months later, the Vikings and Cowboys meet to determine which one of them has dug their playoff grave even deeper. For two of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, one of these teams is going to be 1-4 when all is said and done Sunday.
The Cowboys have had problems on both sides of the ball. A big problem early has been a huge disparity on offense. Quarterback Tony Romo has thrown more than twice as often as the Cowboys have run the ball. He is averaging a whopping 44 passes a game, while his running backs have carried the ball just 87 times total. The offense has been one dimensional and Romo has paid for it. He has been sacked seven times and thrown five interceptions. If the Vikings pass rush can rattle him, he will go down and he will force passes. Like a younger version of Brett Favre, Romo can make the big play to win games, but can also make the critical mistake that loses a game.
Romo's incredible passing numbers have been the result of a lack of faith the Cowboys have in their running game. Through four games, Adrian Peterson has 88 rushing attempts on his own. The combination of Felix Jones and Marion Barber have 79 between them. The expectation was that the duo would have about 30 carries a game, with more thrown in for third-down back Tashard Choice. Despite breaking a pair of runs for 34 and 23 yards against Tennessee, Jones, a favorite of Dallas owner Jerry Jones, has rushed for just 140 yards on his other 35 carries – a respectable, but not game-breaking 4.0-yard average. Barber is a tough runner, but is averaging just 3.4 yards a carry with a long run of 12 yards. The biggest problem has been never actually getting into a run rhythm. Barber is averaging just 10 carries a game, Jones is averaging nine and Choice is averaging less than one. The results have been obvious. A one-dimensional pass offense struggles to succeed and the Cowboys are evidence of that. Running against a stout Vikings rush defense, even one that has been gashed a couple of times this year, will be a tall order.
The beneficiaries of the pass-happy attack have been the wide receivers and tight ends. Miles Austin is averaging almost eight catches a game and has 474 yards and two touchdowns. Roy Williams, who was an unqualified bust in his first two seasons with the Cowboys, has suddenly become a scoring threat, leading the team with three touchdown catches. Tight end Jason Witten has 20 catches, rookie Dez Bryant has 17 more and No. 2 tight end Martellus Bennett has 13. At the current pace, Austin would pull in 124 passes, Williams and Witten would catch 70 or more and five players would catch 50 or more passes. Bryant didn't practice all week due to rib and ankle injuries, but is listed as questionable on the injury report – although not practicing is typically a signal of not playing, especially for a young wide receiver. With the Vikings thin in the secondary due to injuries and Asher Allen expected to replace Cedric Griffin in the starting lineup, don't be surprised if the Cowboys throw 40 times or more again on Sunday.
The inexplicable lack of production from the running game has been a surprise, since the Cowboys have a veteran offensive line that has played together for three years or more, with tackles Doug Free and Marc Colombo, guards Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis and center Andre Gurode. The highest compliment that can paid to the group is that casual fans know some or all of their names. That isn't easy for O-linemen who remain anonymous, but the line has been uncharacteristically penalty-prone, with Free leading the way. His holding penalty at a critical time late in the season opener at Washington cost his team a win and he will have his hands full with Jared Allen and a Vikings defense built to stop the run.
Perhaps even more surprising has been ineffectiveness of the Cowboys defense. Viewed as one of the premier units heading into the season, the Cowboys have allowed opponents to average 4.5 yards on the ground and have a passer rating of 92.5, which is better than the Dallas passer rating despite rolling up yards and completions. That being said, this is a dangerous defense that starts up front with a player who technically is a linebacker. DeMarcus Ware is a beast who serves essentially as a stand-up[ defensive lineman. He has six of the Cowboys' nine sacks and, like a hybrid of Jevon Kearse and Lawrence Taylor, he needs to be accounted for on every play. Expect to see Brett Favre pointing his way to settle up line calls based on where Ware is lined up.
The Cowboys run a 3-4 defense, something the Vikings are going to be painfully used to by the end of the month – the Jets ran it on Monday and the Packers, Patriots and Cardinals who follow all play the 3-4. For a 3-4 to work, having a dominant nose tackle that can occupy two linemen by himself is a must. Jay Ratliff is as dominant a nose tackle presence as there is in the league. He is flanked by big defensive ends Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky. Both of them are strong run stoppers and occasional pass rushers that can blow up plays. Dallas has decent depth with Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen – both of whom have starting experience. They will provide a lot of pressure on the Vikings offensive line to maintain the integrity of the pocket and, if the middle of the Vikings O-line isn't on its "A" game, they could cause a lot of problems for Brett Favre.
The Cowboys have a very strong quartet of linebackers, led by Ware. He is a dominant pass rusher, and Anthony Spencer brings the heat from other side. Both are dangerous and Spencer is more likely to get more one-on-one opportunities and is second on the team with two sacks. In the middle, Bradie James and Keith Brooking are classic overachievers who use emotion and good-tackling ability. Brooking has got the attention of the Vikings for his theatrics when the Vikings scored a late touchdown to go ahead 34-3 in their playoff game, but both are aggressive players who chase down plays. They will be critical to slowing down Adrian Peterson. If they can't, look for A.D. to be running all day.
The biggest issue for the Cowboys has been its pass defense. They got lit up last week by Vince Young, who is far from a dominant quarterback. While they have an elite corner in Terence Newman, he isn't a dominator like Darrelle Revis, but he does everything at a high level – coverage, run support, etc. On the other side, Mike Jenkins improved by leaps and bounds last year, but this season has been scorched often. He will peek into the backfield and a savvy QB like Favre can make him look bad. With a playmaker like Randy Moss opposite him at times, he could take advantage of his aggression. Depth is extremely thin. Special teamer Orlando Scandrick is the other corner on the roster, so if something happens to Newman or Jenkins, the Cowboys will be painfully thin in pure corners. They have five safeties on the roster, but they are primarily special-teams guys. Gerald Sensabaugh is the only experienced veteran in the group. Alan Ball, who replaced veteran Ken Hamlin at free safety, is a first-year starter and the veteran of the remaining safeties. The other three are rookies, two of them undrafted. Of all the units on the team, this is the one that least afford an injury and, given that the starters need to play almost every snap, the most likely area of the defense to break down if the Vikings can control the clock.
Whether fans believe the hype to the Panic Bowl, this is a critical game for two teams many thought would meet in January again. The winner can start the process of rebuilding. The loser will be 1-4 and facing some long playoff odds. Losing will be viewed as unacceptable and the panic will begin – like it or not.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Preview: Cowboys bring an unbalanced attack
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