Vikings vs. Cowboys: Breaking Down Minnesota's Game Plan

Tim Arcand@@TArcandCorrespondent IOctober 31, 2013

Theoretically, the Minnesota Vikings can still match their record from last season—of course they have to do the improbable (or really impossible) and win their remaining nine games. Even though that is not going to happen, there are still some reasons for Vikings fans to pay attention to this team.

Topping the list is rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. Despite the lack of any consistency at quarterback, and the fact that he has only played in 103 offensive snaps, Patterson has still made an impact. 

He was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, and this week, following his 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, he was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

With his second touchdown of the season, he has matched the Vikings' franchise record held by Percy Harvin. With nine games remaining, Patterson has a shot to match the NFL record of four kickoff returns for a touchdown, last set in 1970 by Cecil Turner of the Bears. Turner scored four times on only 23 kickoff returns. 

Don't write off Adrian Peterson just yet. After seven games, he's only 81 yards behind his pace of last season. If ever there was a player worth watching, it's Peterson. Perhaps the Vikings will realize that they have to give him the ball. The past three games, he's only averaged 12 carries.  

Since being drafted by the Vikings in 2007, there is good reason to give Peterson the ball more than 20 times per game. The following table compares Peterson's performance when he carries the ball fewer than 20 times to when he carries the ball more than 20 times.   

Adrian Peterson: The More Work the Better
CarriesGamesAttemptsYardsAtt/GYds/GTD
Less than 20487023,41614.671.233
20 or More481,1806,00424.6125.149
Pro Football Reference

The Vikings' record when Peterson gets more carries is 32-16. When they go away from the best running back in franchise history, they're 16-32.

Then there's a host of players you won't see in a Vikings uniform next season, and the next nine games will be your last chance to see them. Jared Allen leads this group that may include Kevin Williams, Christian Ponder, Everson Griffen and Chris Cook—of course in the case of Cook, he actually has to be healthy enough to play in order to see him on the field.

This will be the 29th time the Vikings have played the Cowboys, including the playoffs. The series is even at 14 games each. Surprisingly, the visiting team in this series is 16-12, and the Vikings are 7-5 playing in Dallas.

The Cowboys are only the third team the Vikings have played this season without a losing record, that includes the Lions (0-0) in the season opener. Of course with the Vikings at 1-6, this doesn't mean anything. At this point, just about every team in the NFL is better than the Vikings, and even at 4-4, the Cowboys are leading the NFC East, and they need a win to stay atop of the division. 

Look for the Cowboys to be angry this game, especially after they yielded 329 receiving yards to Calvin Johnson, and quarterback Matthew Stafford was able to score the winning touchdown with only 14 seconds left in the game.

The winning drive covered 80 yards in only six plays and took only 0:50, as the Cowboys yielded pass plays of 17, 22 and 40 yards before Stafford scored the touchdown. 

 

When the Cowboys Have the Ball

The Cowboys' strength is in their passing game. They are ranked eighth in the league with 261 yards per game. After leading the NFL in interceptions last season, Romo has done a better job of protecting the ball. He has 18 touchdown passes with only five interceptions.

The Cowboy have done a very good job of protecting quarterback Tony Romo. He has been sacked only 16 times this season in eight games.

One key for the Vikings will be to put pressure on Romo. Over the past two seasons, the Vikings have been very good at putting pressure on the quarterback. In 2011, they led the NFL with 50 sacks, and last season, they were fifth with 44. This season, they are 27th in the league, on pace for only 32 sacks.

The Vikings secondary has been terrible this season. It's unlikely that they will turn this around any time soon, so they should focus on completely shutting down the run and minimizing Romo's time to operate in the pocket.

Jared Allen leads the Vikings with 4.5 sacks, and the next two behind him are linebackers Erin Henderson (3.0) and Chad Greenway (2.0). The Vikings should turn these two loose and blitz early and often.

The only downside to this strategy is that these two also lead the Vikings with two interceptions each.

The downside to this strategy might be that the Romo will be able to pick apart the Vikings secondary and the Cowboys will score quickly. 

Of course, that might not be a bad thing—the Vikings are last in the NFL in time of possession. With the 30th-ranked scoring defense, it's not a matter whether or not the Cowboys will score, but how long it will take. Quicker scores might get the defense off the field quicker. 

 

When the Vikings Have the Ball

As pointed out above, the Vikings should find a way to get the ball in Adrian Peterson's hands as often as possible. They should try to get him 25 rushes and set up some passes for him as well. Against the Giants, his 22-yard catch-and-run was the longest pass play for the Vikings. 

Even when they get behind, they shouldn't abandon the run and look to pass their way back into the game. In his past 16 games, Peterson has seven runs of at least 60 yards.

In 2012, Ponder started all 16 games and only had one completion for more than 60 yards.

If Freeman gets the start, the Vikings might want to think about taking some shots downfield. Unlike Ponder, Freeman has been a little more successful—not counting his game against the Giants. 

According to ESPN, in 16 starts last season for the Buccaneers, Freeman had six games with a completion of more than 60 yards. 

Working in the Vikings' favor, is the fact that they will face the worst passing defense in the NFL. They have given up more than 400 yards three times this season, yielding 480 yards to the Lions last week.

So, all the Vikings offense needs to do is get some extra practice this week against its starting defense and it should be good to go.  

As I have pointed out last week, the Vikings should open the game with three wide receivers to spread out the defense. As poorly as the Dallas defense has been against the pass, they might be able to take advantage of that and actually be successful running Peterson with the quarterback in the shotgun.

On the following play from the Giants game, the Vikings are in such a formation. What this does is it moves a defender out of the box. 

It would provide a different wrinkle to their offense, and it just might open things up.

The Vikings should also look to get Cordarrelle Patterson more involved in the offense. With his size, it would make sense to line him out wide with Greg Jennings in the slot.

According to Pro Football Reference, Jennings is listed as questionable against the Cowboys. If that's the case, it makes even more sense to play Patterson and use Jarius Wright in the slot when they go to three wide receivers. 

Either way, Patterson has been the most exciting player for the Vikings as their kick returner. Might as well play him more on offense and see what he can do. 

He just might draw some more attention from the defense and perhaps, just maybe, Jerome Simpson will have more room to operate and finally score his first touchdown as a Viking. 

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