Cowboys' attack puts pressure on Vikings LBs

No team loves the draw play like the Dallas Cowboys, putting pressure on linebackers to make quick read-and-react decisions and figure out whether to support the run or get back in coverage on Jason Witten and company. Chad Greenway knows the spotlight will be on him and his fellow linebackers.

Playoff football is as overanalyzed as any aspect of professional sports. As the numbers of teams dwindle, the big plays – both good and bad – are magnified. There are a lot of Vikings that are going to be under the microscope Sunday, but perhaps nobody will be facing more of a personal challenge than linebacker Chad Greenway.

The Cowboys offense operates on a relatively simple formula. They like to run draw plays in the running game – they led the league by a wide margin in the number of draw plays, approximately one out of every three – and they throw a lot to their tight ends. Jason Witten had 94 receptions, second only to Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts among tight ends, and he is as important to the Cowboys offense as just about any player on the field.

Greenway admitted that he will be in the center of a lot of the action Sunday, because the draw plays are intended to freeze the linebackers by giving the impression that quarterback Tony Romo will be throwing slant passes. That, combined with the number of screens the Cowboys throw, as well as trying to free up Witten down the seam, and Greenway knows the ball is going to be in his area more than it would be in most games.

He said he's not putting too much pressure on himself, but knows that he is going to have the opportunity to make plays and that he, Ben Leber and Jasper Brinkley will be an important component if the Vikings are to come away with a win and move on to the NFC Championship Game.

"The focus of this game won't be on one player, but a lot of what they do presents opportunities for linebackers to make plays," Greenway said. "I'm sure I'm going to have opportunities to make plays. I'm just going to have to be ready when those chances present themselves and make the most of them, because you know coming in what they like to do on offense. There will be chances for all of us, but the main thing will be sticking with your fundamentals and make the play when it comes your way."

The draw play has been a staple of the Cowboys offense all season. More than 30 percent of their running plays have come on draws, the objective being to give their offensive linemen the opportunity to lock on the defensive front four and direct them where they want them to go.

"We've faced some teams that have run draws and screens because of our rush, so it does present some problems," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "You're always concerned it's going to slow guys down and we don't want that to happen on Sunday. We want our guys rushing the quarterback and not fiddling on the line of scrimmage waiting for a draw, and all of a sudden Romo's holding the football. So it presents some problems, but you really have to react to it and just play it as it comes."

It will be the job of the linebackers to shoot the gaps to blow up those draw plays before the Cowboys running backs can get a head of steam going. But Greenway said the Vikings have been doing a lot of film study on the Cowboys and have been searching out "tells" they may have that tip off when they will be running a draw play.

"They run a lot of draws," Greenway said. "A high percentage of their running game is based on draw plays. It does slow you down a little bit in your pass reads and it's something you have to be aware of. You have to read your keys and pick up on things you've seen on tape."

One of the biggest challenges will be the diverse nature of the Cowboys run game. Marion Barber is a no-nonsense banger who takes on defenders head-on and tries to wear them down. Felix Jones is a speedster whom the Cowboys try to isolate with linebackers in the open field, whether it is on sweeps in the running game or screen passes in the passing game. Then there is Tashard Choice. He has become both a third-down specialist and takes direct snaps in the Wildcat offense. Greenway said he and his linebacker mates will have be aware of all three of them and the dangers each one poses to the Vikings defense.

"It's one thing when you prepare for one primary running back, but Dallas has three guys that can hurt you," Greenway said. "Barber is a tough runner who is hard to bring down if you don't wrap him up. Felix Jones has great speed to the outside and, if you're out of position, he can blow by you for big gain. Choice is another guy who does a lot of things – catching the ball, running the Wildcat. Obviously, they will all have to be accounted for."

As daunting as those challenges will be, the tight ends are just as imposing. Not only is Witten one of Romo's favorite targets, tight end Martellus Bennett is incredibly gifted athletically and can make plays deep down the field – creating speed mismatches with linebackers and size mismatches with safeties.

Greenway said that blanketing both of them will be a key to stymieing the Dallas passing attack. Considering the Vikings' struggles against big, athletic tight ends this season, that will be a tall order.

"You see the things Witten can do week in, week out," Greenway said. "He's an important piece of their offense. We know they're going to throw him the ball. Our job is to minimize what he does. I don't think we're going to completely shut him down, because they do a lot of things to get the ball into his hands. Our job is going to be to get our hands on him when he does get the ball and prevent him from doing anything after the catch when he does get the ball."

With the Vikings rested and having the opportunity to watch Dallas play against the Eagles the last two weeks, Sunday's game will be a battle of strength vs. strength. With three wins over playoff teams in the last four weeks – at New Orleans and twice vs. Philadelphia – the Cowboys are arguably the hottest team in the league and picking up a lot of passengers on their Super Bowl bandwagon. The Vikings earned their first-round bye and with it earned the right to make Dallas come to the Metrodome to play.

Does either team have an advantage? The Cowboys are on a roll but have to come into the Metrodome, where the crowd is going to be as loud as perhaps any hostile environment the Cowboys offense has tried to operate in. Greenway said he isn't sure which team has the edge, because both have a lot going for them.

"Their timing on offense will be better, because we've taken a week off," he said. "But, we'll be rested and that will help us. It's an advantage, but I don't know if it's an advantage either way. I've never taken a bye in the playoffs, so we'll see what happens."

One thing that is certain, however, is that Greenway will be in the spotlight much of the game when the Vikings defense is on the field. With as many critical performances that will unfold and help determine who wins and moves on and who goes home, perhaps none will be as important as how Greenway fares. If he steps up big and contains the bread and butter of the Dallas offense, it will go a long way to keeping Mission Miami alive and well for the Vikings.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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