The Cowboys seem to match up well with the Vikings; Dallas owns the NFL’s worst pass defense, but the Vikings are having one heck of a hard time throwing the football. Meanwhile, the Vikings are one of only seven teams to have allowed over 2,000 yards passing, fitting nicely with what the Cowboys do well offensively.
Much of the Cowboys’ success will come down to containing running back Adrian Peterson. The Vikings are hardly an explosive offense, but Peterson is one of the few running backs in the NFL who can legitimately change the scope of a game with just a couple carries.
Without further ado, here’s my game plan for Dallas in Week 9.
DON’T always expect a first-down run.
The Vikings own one of the league’s best rushing attacks thanks to A.P., but it’s not like they run the ball all the time. You’d think the Vikings would be extremely run heavy on first down since they don’t have a quality quarterback and are likely looking to set up manageable third downs, but they’re not.
Through Week 8, the Vikings ran the ball on 50.6 percent of their first downs in the first half of games. Studying first-half stats can be superior to entire box scores because game situations don’t change all that much in the first half; contests are still about point-maximization, so teams tend to call plays as they wish as opposed to because of the score.
The Vikings’ first-down run rate is barely above the league average of 49.9 percent. While the Cowboys’ first, second and third priority should be Peterson, it’s not like he gets the ball on every first down.
DO blitz a lot.
The Vikings aren’t sure if Josh Freeman or Christian Ponder will start at quarterback, according to USA Today. For Dallas’s purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the ‘Boys should bring the heat.
I charted the passer ratings for Freeman and Ponder against the blitz this season using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Both quarterbacks have struggled mightily when defenses send five or more rushers. There’s even greater evidence of that in their completion rates.
Both Freeman and Ponder have completed at least 61.5 percent of their passes against four or fewer rushers, but neither passer has a completion rate above 41.8 percent against the blitz. Dallas needs to take advantage.
DON’T ignore tight end Kyle Rudolph in the red zone.
Neither of the Vikings starting wide receivers—Jerome Simpson or Greg Jennings—have converted more than 28.6 percent of their career red-zone targets into touchdowns.
Meanwhile, tight end Kyle Rudolph is one of the game’s premiere red-zone threats. Although he’s been quiet this year, Rudolph still has an amazing 46.4 percent career red-zone touchdown rate.
The Vikings have scored only one touchdown inside of four yards this year, but Rudolph is their primary receiving threat inside the 20-yard line.
DO stack the left side of the defense.
Of the Vikings’ 131 designed runs, only 55 (42.0 percent) have gone to the left side of the offense. Most of those have still been up the middle, just to the left of the center. If you remove all middle runs, only 37.2 percent of Minnesota’s runs have gone left.
Simply put, the Vikings love to run the ball to the right side of their offense, so it makes sense for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to load up the left side of his defense. If safety Barry Church creeps into the box, he should generally do it on the left side of the defense.
DON’T double-team defensive end Jared Allen.
Defensive end Jared Allen is Minnesota's biggest pass-rushing threat. The Cowboys shouldn’t allocate too many resources to stifling Allen, however, because Minnesota has another pass-rusher who might be playing even better: defensive end Brian Robison.
I detailed the matchup between Robison and right tackle Doug Free in my Week 9 primer:
Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is perhaps the unluckiest player in the NFL through Week 8. See, Robison has just one sack on the year, suggesting he hasn’t gotten to the passer all that much. In reality, the defensive end has quietly been one of the league’s most efficient pass-rushers.
Through Week 8, Pro Football Focus has tracked only one defensive end as racking up more than 26 pressures. It’s Robison, and he has 32 of them. Of the other six defensive ends with at least 22 pressures (a group that includes Cowboys defensive end George Selvie), the average sack total is 3.67.
I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of his pressures. With 32 pressures, Robison’s most likely sack total at this point in the season is closer to eight than it is to one.
Robison has rushed from the left side of the Vikings defense on 99.2 percent of his snaps in 2013, per PFF. That means he’ll be matched up exclusively on right tackle Doug Free.
The Cowboys desperately need to provide quarterback Tony Romo with better protection, but unlike what public opinion might tell you, Robison is the guy they need to monitor most.
DO attack Josh Robinson.
The Vikings have two cornerbacks playing quality football—Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook. Cook suffered a hip strain last week, but TwinCities.com is reporting he’s day-to-day. Both Rhodes and Cook have allowed 1.05 yards per route or less, according to PFF, ranking them in the top 30 in the NFL. Rhodes’ 0.81 mark is the eighth best in the league.
Meanwhile, cornerback Josh Robinson isn’t playing so well.
At 2.20 yards allowed per snap, Robinson ranks 74th in the league—the second worst for any cornerback who has played at least half of his team’s snaps.
To give you an idea of how poorly Robinson has played, consider that he’s allowed a completion on 50 of 56 throws his way—89.3 percent. No other cornerback in the NFL has allowed more than 35 receptions!
The Vikings probably won’t place Robinson on wide receiver Dez Bryant too much, so it could be a big day for Terrance Williams.
DON’T keep giving the ball to running back Joseph Randle.
Over his first 44 NFL carries, rookie running back Joseph Randle has averaged just 2.5 YPC. You might argue that we shouldn’t judge a running back on such a small sample, but this isn’t a first-round back we’re talking about. Signs pointed to Randle being a potentially poor NFL running back before he was even drafted.
Meanwhile, it looks as though the Cowboys will have running back DeMarco Murray back in action.
With Lance Dunbar also available, Randle shouldn’t see much playing time. Here’s why Dunbar is superior to Randle.
DO run more play action!
I’ve pretty much made a commitment to posting the Cowboys play-action numbers every week. Take a look at the bottom five quarterback in the NFL in play-action passing rate, per PFF.
That’s Romo with the lowest rate, by far, even when compared to the quarterbacks who attempt the fewest play-action passes in the NFL.
And after generating a 109.1 passer rating on play action in 2012, Romo’s current play-action passer rating this year is 126.5. Increasing the play-action rate might decrease Romo’s efficiency on the look, but the overall efficiency of the offense would be enhanced if the Cowboys substantially increased the number of passes on which they use play-action.