Don't get me wrong...the Cowboys' outside pass rush is formidable. On one flank, you have Ware, not only one of the most feared rushers in the NFL but also amongst the league leaders in stripping the ball, year in and out. On the other side, you have an emerging Anthony Spencer, who's starting to justify his selection in the first round of the 2007 Draft.
Opposing QBs have been sacked nine times by the two Dallas OLBs during the current four-game win streak. Between them, they've also forced ball carriers to cough it up three times in that period.
Combine that with some spotty pass protection schemes and execution in recent weeks by the Vikings coaches and players, along with Brett Favre's 40-year-old legs, and it could get ugly for Minnesota fans.
But even Lawrence Taylor had a chink in his armor. Offensive coordinators who ran right at L.T. may not have found him to be a weak run defender, per se. But doing so certainly helped neutralize his impact on the passing game. Not only did handing off keep the ball out of the QB's hands, continually putting bigger, forward-moving tackle and tight end bodies on L.T. also helped wear the smaller man down as the game progressed, further subtracting from his ability to terrorize passers.
It's certain this tactic will be one of the main courses on Brad Childress's menu for Favre this week.
It just may work. Ware's effectiveness against the run has been down this year: only half a run stuff all season after averaging 7.5 the previous four years.
Granted, Wade Phillips isn't new to the business and knows that teams want to attack Ware this way. The surrounding defenders know full well they need to support Ware in the run game.
Regardless, the Vikes improve their odds if they run 340-pound Bryant McKinnie and 275-pound tight end Jim Kleinsasser right at 260-pound Ware, early and often. The same size advantage can be found on the other side if they tag team big rookie T Phil Loadholt and TE Jeff Dugan against Spencer.
The Vikings must run at Ware and Spencer. The alternative is to put them in a position to succeed...rushing the passer.
The big challenge for the Vikes won't be for Adrian "A.D." Peterson to rip huge chunks of yards off-tackle from the get go. It'll be Favre having the patience to stick with the formula, even if only modest results are achieved early on. Wearing down smaller, faster players requires reps. If A.D. has only 40 yards on 12-15 carries in the first half, that's not wasted effort if Dallas's OLBs, CBs, and safeties get physically beat up while fighting off blocks to contain A.D.
Every fan understands the benefit of knocking down the QB even if he succeeded in getting the ball out. Run blocking is similar: every defender you pancake pays a price, even if the runner gets only three yards. Knockdowns pay dividends late in the game, whether the guy getting knocked down is a QB, LB, or DB.
In addition, the plan is incomplete if the defense doesn't keep the game close. Or if A.D. turns the ball over.
But if Brett can be patient and the D can cool down Dallas's hot offense a bit, the Vikes Ts and TEs should have a clear advantage against Ware and Spencer by the time the second half rolls around. Not only would that give Brett an extra second to throw the ball, the safeties will be more inclined to bite on play action, providing some nice real estate for receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin on skinny posts.
The Real Threat
Who Vike fans don't fear enough is Dallas's outstanding NT Jay Ratliff, who'll be teeing off on first year C John Sullivan. Ratliff is outstanding against both the pass and the run. Meanwhile, Sully has had some terrible, deer-in-the-headlights moments this year (although to be fair, he did improve after a shaky start).
If Sully and the guards don't come up with an answer for Ratliff knifing through the A gaps, A.D. won't be able to even get to the tackle's outside gap, much less run off it.
Especially if Chilly sticks with the Power I and FB Naufahu Tahi can't slow down Ratliff. Lining up A.D. in a split back formation might help ameliorate some of Ratliff's effectiveness.
But Sully is clearly the man on the spot this week.
Luckily for him and Minnesota fans, the Cowboys' ILBs haven't been asked to shoot gaps much this year. Might Phillips have kept this card hidden up his sleeve, specifically to use against a heavy I formation team like the Vikes? We'll see.
It wouldn't be the first time a wily, veteran DC sprung some new looks on Chilly's offense in the playoffs. This time around, though, the Vikes have a veteran QB who can deal with those new looks.