Defensive coaches have always preached one simple mantra to their players – the first goal is always stopping the run. If you can put offenses in bad down-and-distance situations, it is always an advantage for a defense and something that helps good defenses become dominant.
When the Minnesota Vikings have won this season, one of the constants has been that they have been able to limit the running game and force offenses to become more one-dimensional and, at times, almost completely abandon the run game because it isn’t working
The Dallas Cowboys made some waves when they selected running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick in this spring’s draft. Given the decline in draft value of running backs, it’s rare to see a runner go that high, but Dallas knew what it was doing.
In 11 games, Elliott has more rushing yards (1,199) than anyone in the league and the superlatives just grow from there. He has had 20 or more carries in nine games (with 15 and 18 carries in the other two). He has topped 100 yards five times. Since Week 3, he hasn’t rushed for less than 92 yards in any game. He has rushed for 11 touchdowns, including four games with two rushing TDs.
With an offensive line in front of him that boasts three young first-round picks – both tackles and the center – the Cowboys have made no bones about their offensive philosophy. It’s the same thing that made Emmitt Smith a Hall of Famer back in day and DeMarco Murray a league rushing champ in his final season in Dallas. Elliott is an extension on that plan of attack and Vikings defensive end Brian Robison sees Thursday as the biggest challenge up front the Vikings have faced all season.
“You’ve got to be technically and fundamentally sound with these guys,” Robison said. “You look at them, that’s how they gash people with their running game. You get one guy out of a gap or one guy who tries to make a play and he’s not where he’s supposed to be, it just creates a big hole. They’re very good at creating a seam. Those guys are very fundamentally sound. They stick on their blocks. Now you’ve created a seam and you see it with them all the time that Elliott is 5 or 10 yards up the field before he even gets touched.”
Although Elliott has the speed to bounce plays outside and turn the corner, he makes most of his yards between the tackle. It will make players like Linval Joseph critical to the game as he attempts to clog the inside run game.
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Joseph has been impressed with what he has seen on film of Elliott and knows the Vikings’ defensive front will have to mind its P’s and Q’s on every play because Elliott can break a long run at any time.
“It’s all about going out there and executing,” Joseph said. “(Elliott) is a very good all-around back. He’s got good burst and their line does a great job of opening run lanes for him. We pride ourselves on being able to stop the run. That is what is going to be key for us because it’s our strength against their strength.”
Elliott has been the beneficiary of a gigantic offensive line that does its job extremely well. Elliott often gets to the second level untouched and can do a lot damage when run lanes are opened for him.
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He has a combination of speed, power and vision and, when given a free run to the line of scrimmage, he’s hard to stop, so gap integrity will take on even more importance than usual.
“With him being able to hit the hole at full speed, he can break tackles, make moves on you and, with his speed, it makes it tough,” Robison said. “We have to stay with our fundamentals more than usual, which means be gapped out and everyone doing his job to make sure they don’t create those running lanes. When we get the opportunity to make plays, you have to be in the right spot and let our athleticism do the rest.”
It is the speed of the Vikings front seven that they are counting on to keep Elliott from running wild on them. The Cowboys offensive line is massive, but Robison believes the Vikings can use their speed and athletic ability to prevent running lanes from opening and slow Elliott at the point when he hits the line, allowing the second line of the defense to flood the gaps and minimize gains to the shorter variety.
“We’re more athletic up front than they are,” Robison said. “We have to be in attack mode, but keeping in mind that we have a responsibility on each and every play to stick to our keys, maintain our gaps and maintain our technique. Up front, we’ve got to find a way to get to him, wrap him up and have three or four guys closing in on him.”
With the eye-popping rushing numbers Elliott has put up this season, it’s clear that even if he gets bottled up early, Dallas isn’t going to abandon the run. Given their success over the last nine games, during which Elliott has run for more than 1,000 yards and never less than 92 in any game, the Vikings’ defensive front is going to have its hands full.
For a lot of the Vikings’ young players, it will be their first time going up against the current running game and run blocking scheme of the Cowboys. But, for someone like Joseph, who began his career in the NFC East as a member of the New York Giants, this is nothing new.
Dallas has gone through coaching changes, personnel changes, even home changes. But, one thing has remained the same since Jerry Jones has owned the team – the Cowboys value huge offensive linemen and use them to make stars out of the running backs who toil behind them.
“I played Dallas twice a year and not much has changed from then until now,” Joseph said. “They like to run and, even if you shut them down, they’re not going to go away from it. They’re going to keep pounding the run at you. We know that and have to be ready to keep them held down all day long because they won’t quit running and go one-dimensional. That’s not how they do things.”