Years before they had the best record in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys made a point to build their team by strengthening their offensive line. In a four-year span, the Cowboys used first-round draft picks on the offensive line, drafting left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011, center Travis Frederick in 2013 and right guard Zach Martin in 2014.
The result has been just what they hoped. Before he was allowed to leave via free agency, DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing. Last season, oft-injured journeyman Darren McFadden ran for more than 1,000 yards. This season, rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL in rushing and has often gotten to the second level of the defense untouched.
“They’re really good. They’re really, really good,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of the Cowboys offensive line. “They’re the best line I've seen in a long time in the NFL, physical, athletic, big.”
The Minnesota Vikings defense is going to be facing one of its stiffest challenges of the season when it goes up against a Dallas offense that has one of the strongest offensive lines in recent memory and all three levels of the defense need to be concerned.
“They’re a great offensive line,” defensive tackle Shamar Stephen said. “They have a great scheme, a very, very good running back and a good young quarterback. They have one of the top lines in the league and they’re about as good as I’ve seen on tape. We’re going to have to be ready for them.”
The strength of the Dallas offensive line is able to impact all three levels of the defense. They not only are extremely strong in the run game, they can extend pass plays for rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, which is reason for concern for the secondary, which will be tested to stay with receivers for longer periods of time than they typically have to.
“When you have a good O-line, it’s going to help out everywhere – run game, pass game,” safety Andrew Sendejo said. “As a safety, you have to be involved in both of those so it does affect you. They’re going to be able to block it up, run-wise they’re going to get on the second level. But, we just do what we do every week. Just try to do our job, do it to the best of our ability and just execute.”
When it comes to combating the Dallas offensive line, the first problem is their size. Much like the success the Vikings enjoyed in 2012 and 2015 when they had a healthy offensive line and Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing, the Cowboys’ ground dominance can not only impose its will on an opponent, but it can open up a lot of things offensively in both the run and pass game.
The problem for the Vikings’ defensive front is that, despite losing La’el Collins to injury earlier in the year, Dallas has as much firepower up front as any offensive line in the league and the sum of the parts is more impressive than its individual members.
“They do a lot of things well,” Stephen said. “They’re big. They play with good power. They play with sound technique. They have great athleticism. This is going to be a good test for us. We’re going to really have to play technically sound against them.”
For players like veteran Chad Greenway, who has seen the success the Vikings have had over the years thanks to having continuity on the offensive line and what problems that can pose for a defense, not having that same continuity on this year’s team has been an issue all season long – as Vikings O-lineman have dropped like flies all year long.
There couldn’t be a more stark contrast in the level of play and the success and failure that the two offensive lines have had, which has been the primary difference between what the Cowboys have been able to accomplish and what the Vikings haven’t been able to do.
“Having that cohesiveness is so nice for an offensive line, just having that group be together,” Greenway said. “We’ve seen the opposite here, but that’s not an excuse. We have NFL-caliber players on this team and good football players and we’re capable of winning this football game. We have to have that belief and the mentality. I think they know, based off of our tape, that they’re going to get a full day’s work and we’ll just see who comes out on top. We’re by no means going to let them roll their helmets out and get the win. We’re going to go out there and fight.”
At the end of the day, regardless of their records, the battle that will be waged in the trenches Thursday night is going to be the primary strength of both teams. The Cowboys aren’t going to change what they do because of the strength of their offensive line and the Vikings are going to change what they do because of the ability of the defensive line to win the trench warfare consistently.
It will be a battle of wills and whoever can dominate when big men slam bodies together will be the team that will have the clear and distinct edge Thursday.
“They’re going to be a big challenge for us,” Stephen said. “They have a great O-line and we’re confident in what we can do as a defense up front. We’re ready to play and ready to get after it. We’re going to have to play within our scheme and do our assignments. It will be their strength against ours.”