The Vikings' next opponent, it can be argued, is their toughest to date – the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys. Still stinging from a loss to the Patriots last week in which New England rolled up 48 points on the Cowboys, they are looking to get back on the winning track and the Vikings just happen to be the team that followed the Patriots into Texas Stadium.
The Cowboys, under first-year head coach Wade Phillips, are coming off a wild-card playoff season under then-coach Bill Parcells in which they had the Seattle Seahawks on the ropes in the final seconds in which many believe they should have come away with a road victory. This is arguably the strongest Cowboys team since Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin thrilled Dallas fans. They are dangerous on both sides of the ball and have the ability two win 13-10 games with their defense or win 38-35 shootouts with their offense.
The Cowboys' high-octane offense centers around quarterback Tony Romo. A midseason replacement, Romo started 10 games last year and will be entering his second season as a starting QB (Sunday will be his 17th start). Romo has compiled some big numbers through six games, completing 119 of 200 passes for 1,707 yards and 15 touchdowns – second only to Tom Brady for most TD passes this season. He has a 93.5 passer rating, which took a big hit last week against the Patriots. Romo has nine interceptions on the year – most coming in the past two weeks – and showed that if he's pressured, he will throw passes that will get him in trouble. He has been a deep passer ever since taking over the offense and will give defenders opportunities to make plays. He's backed up by former Vikings starter Brad Johnson, but, in his first six games as a Cowboy, Johnson has yet to throw a pass and his only game action was to take one kneeldown at the end of a game to run out the clock.
The Cowboys' running game is a two-headed beast of contrasting styles. Julius Jones remains the starter in name and leads the Cowboys with 69 rushing attempts. He has a gliding style that can move the chains regularly and is has also made plays as a receiver. But the real star of the backfield is Marion Barber. Nicknamed "Marion the Barbarian" by his teammates, Barber is a beast who grinds every inch out of every carry he gets. Despite having five fewer rushing attempts than Jones, Barber has gained more than 100 yards more than Jones – 381 yards to 268. Barber is averaging six yards per rushing attempt, while Jones is averaging less than four. Barber leads the Cowboys with five touchdowns and is a dangerous red zone threat that will require the Vikings linebackers to be on their toes. There will come a time when Barber will surpass Jones as the featured back, but for now, the Cowboys seem content to allow Barber and Jones to have a time share similar to that of the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, despite the similarity of one back dramatically out-gaining the other. Third-year man Tyson Thompson is a third option, but his role has been much more as a kick returner than an offensive contributor. The fullbacks for the Cowboys are pretty pedestrian in Oliver Hoyte and Deon Anderson, but Hoyte is injured and might be a game-time decision. If Hoyte is out, the Vikings might consider trying to blitz more and force backs like Jones to become blockers.
The receivers for the Cowboys are also diverse and dangerous in different ways. Clearly most of the attention goes to Terrell Owens and rightfully so. A tremendous player who is one of the few total packages in the NFL – a combination of speed, size, strength and technique – Owens is as dangerous a big-play receiver as there is the game. He has caught 27 passes on the year and averaged almost 17 yards a catch. He has scored four TDs and, with each one comes the expectation of a new TD celebration that will be rated against his previous efforts. But Owens is far from a one-man show in the receiver corps. With Terry Glenn sidelined since the preseason and out for Sunday's game as well, Patrick Crayton has emerged a legitimate No. 2 receiver. A seventh-round draft pick in 2004, Crayton has caught 24 passes for 381 yards and also scored four touchdowns. With Glenn out, depth is thin with special teamers Sam Hurd, Miles Austin and rookie Isaiah Stanbeck. Hurd is the only of the three with any receptions and he has only five, so depth is a concern if one of the starters gets hurt.
With as many outstanding tight ends as the Vikings have already faced this year, Jason Witten provides just as a big a challenge. He leads the Cowboys in receptions (32), yards (454) and tied for the lead in touchdowns with four. Second-year second-round draft pick Anthony Fasano backs up Witten, but injuries and Romo's rapport with Witten have reduced Fasano's role – through six games, he has just five receptions.
While both Witten and Fasano are adequate blockers, the Cowboys offensive line doesn't need a lot of assistance. Arguably the best O-line in the league, the unit is deep and laden with veteran talent. At the ends, tackles Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo are in their 10th and sixth years, respectively, and both are bookends that can keep pass rushers at bay and move people in the running game. Guard was a huge weakness for Dallas last year, but the Cowboys shocked the NFL world by giving a monster contract to free-agent Leonard Davis of the Cardinals. Davis, who was viewed largely as a bust in Arizona, has flourished with Dallas after being moved to right guard. The other guard spot is the only real weakness of the line. Kyle Kosier is in his sixth season and second with the Cowboys. He is a lunch-pail type of scrapper who is effective at the second level in the running game, but will get overpowered and has shown a propensity to wear down late in games and get beat too often. In the middle, the line is anchored by center Andre Gurode. Perhaps best remembered as the guy who got cut open by a cleat-scraping cheap shot by the Titans, Gurode has developed into a very strong center. He showed tremendous improvement in making reads on defenses last year and has become a rock in the middle that rarely gives ground. Depth is thin, but with this starting unit, unless someone is really hurt, they don't come out of the game.
The Cowboys have been a mixed bag defensively. They held back-to-back opponents to just 17 points combined earlier this year, but have also allowed 35 points to the Giants and 48 points last week to the Patriots. It is a defense that can get burned by big plays, but is a ferocious 3-4 alignment that is designed to create big plays and cause turnovers.
That all begins up front. The line is deep and full of talented players. In the middle, Jason Ferguson isn't massive at 6-3, 305, but he is a tremendous run stuffer and consistently requires double teams that open up rush lanes for interior blitzers. Backup Jay Ratliff is a coach's dream. Extremely energetic and active, he always seems to be around the ball regardless of the direction of the play. On the outside, Marcus Spears and Chris Canty are both impact players who can blow up the pocket. Both were stymied by the previous pass-rush gap schemes, but in Phillips' defense, both are allowed to be unleashed and go after the quarterback. Both are in their third seasons and will take themselves out of plays with wide speed rushes, but each is making improvements to his technique to show multiple looks to offensive linemen. Second-year man Jason Hatcher and Ratliff will see times occasionally in long drives if Canty or Spears needs a breather.
For any 3-4 defense to be successful, it must have active linebackers that make plays. The Cowboys are loaded in that regard. DeMarcus Ware is the biggest playmaker on the team at right outside linebacker. He has notched 5.5 sacks in six games and flies all over the field to make plays in the run game and is good in picking up backs and tight ends in coverage. On the left side is Greg Ellis. A 10-year veteran who struggled as a defensive end in Parcells' system and missed much of last season with a torn Achilles, he is a strong standup edge rusher who times his blitzes well. He's lost a step but is still a dangerous threat that must be accounted for at all times. In the middle, the Cowboys have two very solid players in Akin Ayodele and Bradie James. James isn't spectacular, but he is very good as a two-down linebacker in running situations. Ayodele is a throwback linebacker who is on the field for almost every play. He makes very few mental mistakes and finishes tackles well. As if a starting quartet of excellent players wasn't enough, the Cowboys have two first-round picks in the wings that see spot playing time – 2006 first-rounder Bobby Carpenter in the middle and rookie Anthony Spencer as a designated pass rusher on the outside. While he only has one sack, Spencer is being viewed as having a very bright future.
The only weakness on the Dallas defense is in the secondary. But the team has invested a lot of effort and money to improve it. Anthony Henry is a seven-year veteran who is tied for the league lead with four interceptions, but he is out of Sunday's game. As a result, former first-round draftee Terence Newman will be lining up with one of a pair of fourth-year reserves who were both drafted on the seventh round – Jacques Reeves or Nathan Jones. Either of them will likely get picked on by the Vikings pass game and Newman might be avoided completely. At safety, the Cowboys have one of the biggest hitters in the league in Roy Williams, but he is viewed as something of a liability in pass coverage, especially over the top. The Cowboys went to free agency to sign Ken Hamlin to start opposite Williams. Both have a pair of interceptions and have helped turn what was a weakness of the defense a little bit more into a strength.
The Vikings will many difficult opponents and venues to play in this season, but traveling down to Dallas following the Cowboys' first loss of the season could be one of the most daunting. Charged with the task of stopping the NFC's top-rated offense and facing a 3-4 defense they rarely encounter, the Cowboys will provide the Vikings with one of their stiffest challenges of the season. To beat Dallas, the Vikings may need to be perfect – a rarity in this era of the NFL.
Preview: Cowboys Have Weapons in Holster
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