The Cowboys enter the Metrodome (oh, I’m sorry, “Mall of America Field at the Metrodome”) as the hottest team in the NFC, looking for all the world like they will be able to put the Vikings away.
Minnesota is coming off their best three quarters of football this season, and a first round bye in the playoffs, but things aren’t totally straightened out in Minneapolis. Despite shutting down the Giants, the Vikings defense has been exposed by the likes of Arizona (no shame there), Chicago, and Carolina.
So how do the Vikings put the clamps on a red hot Cowboys team? Here’s a look at five things the team should consider before Sunday’s game.
5. Keep Somebody on Jason Witten at All Times
Seriously, even when the Vikings are on offense, Ben Leber should be hiding behind the Cowboy’s bench. When tight ends aren’t busy chipping Jared Allen, they’re carving up the middle of the Viking’s defense.
It’s not just that safeties aren’t tackling well, the linebackers are having trouble running zones in the middle of the field. None of these things shock anybody, they’ve been problems with the Vikings for years, but this is a little different.
Witten is an elite tight end who knows how to take advantage of these holes, and the Vikings need to be prepared to fill them in a hurry.
Of all the options available, Chad Greenway would seem to be the most suited to shadow Witten. He’s the most athletic of the team’s linebacking corps, and even though his coverage skills have been somewhat suspect in the past, he will fly around and make plays, and will usually find himself in position to make a pick once or twice a game.
4. Contain Felix Jones Between the Tackles
I don’t doubt the Williams Wall’s ability to keep Marion Barber under wraps. They excel at stuffing power backs. And while Tashard Choice doesn’t get enough looks to warrant a whole defensive plan around him, Felix Jones could be tricky.
Jones has great burst off the tackles, which turns the Viking’s biggest strength, the line’s ability to get downhill quickly, into a serious liability. If the line is moving too far up the field in a hurry, Jones is going to be able to sweep by them fairly easily.
The end result is either having Jared Allen cover the zone, which is troubling because it leaves the defense susceptible to play action, or having a linebacker assigned to spy him, which is problematic because we’ve already assigned Chad Greenway to Jason Witten.
Putting a safety, or perhaps Jasper Brinkley, who’s a liability in coverage anyway, outside the box to run down Jones will help keep the Vikings from being filleted on running plays, leaving the line to harass Tony Romo.
3. Get After Romo
Tony Romo is a good quarterback who has had an impressive streak of games, but he’s streaky, and just like any young quarterback, you can manipulate him.
This is not, miraculously, a different Tony Romo from the one who lead a much maligned Dallas offense that nearly had coach Wade Phillips fired earlier this season, nor is it a different Tony Romo than the one who has struggled at the end of every season since he became the Cowboys’ starter.
The difference is that his protection has been much better the past several games, and the running game is finally (relatively) healthy and consistent. Of course a good quarterback is going to look good when you give him all the tools.
The thing about Romo, however, is that I think he’s still one of those guys who will get rattled against a good defense. An early turnover, or a few sacks in the first quarter, and he’ll start locking in on receivers and getting rid of the ball earlier than he wants to, which the Vikings can turn into turnovers, field position, and eventually points.
2. Loosen Up
Brad Childress, and by extension, Leslie Fraiser, seem to tighten up during important games. With the exception of the Green Bay game earlier this season, the defensive play calling in the Viking’s nationally televised games this season has been vanilla and uninspiring.
Occasionally the Vikings will unleash an interesting blitz package or a different coverage scheme, but Childress seems terrified of losing games, so much so that he buries his head in the playbook and hamstrings the team.
Yeah, dialing up an odd blitz with Antoine Winfield or a package that uses Brian Robison as a tackle on first or second down might blow up in your face, but at least in the playoffs it’s better to go down shooting than to leave your gun in the holster.
Take Arizona last week, if they don’t run that corner blitz (which had failed miserably earlier in the game), they don’t cause the fumble and win. Now sure, if Michael Adams is missing again, Rodgers probably completes an easy pass to Greg Jennings to move the chains, but the Cardinals took that gamble and won.
The Vikings can’t be afraid to take risks.
1. Make Changes That Will Help the Team Win This Week
This is a sort of left field idea, I admit, but the more I think about it the more I like it.
The weakest links in the Vikings’ defense this year have been Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams.
For whatever reason, neither of the safeties have played very well in coverage, and neither have ever really been known for their tackling prowess. Sure they should get snaps on Sunday, but do you really want to see them providing deep coverage on Miles Austin (Cowboys fans, please don’t answer that).
What I propose is having the base package feature Jamarca Sanford and Antoine Winfield at safety, with Cedric Griffin and Benny Sapp on the outside.
For what it’s worth, Sanford has shown himself on special teams and in brief flashes on defense to be the Viking’s best tackling safety. Now that’s a little like how manila is the best kind of envelope to get a paper cut from, but Sanford has shown flashes of being a really solid player.
While Winfield will probably be starting at corner, his foot injury has noticeably slowed him down the past few weeks. While he was able to come in and make some big plays his first few games out, he has looked decidedly average since.
The solution then, is to put him in a position where he can read the play, but not have to make a fast break to the ball where he becomes a liability. In effect, make him the deep coverage safety so you don’t have to worry about him not being able to run stride for stride with the Cowboy’s bigger, faster receivers, but still give him time to make plays on the ball and be in position to deliver hits.
That leaves Cedric Griffin to lock on Miles Austin, not a perfect situation, but Griffin has done a good job this year covering team’s No. 1 receivers and Winfield would be able to roll and help him out if he got into trouble.
Benny Sapp would mostly be responsible for Roy Williams in this scenario. A perfect situation for Sapp, who goes all out for the ball on almost every play. Sapp might get a shot or two since Williams certainly isn’t going to catch most balls thrown at him.
Win or lose, the Vikings defense certainly has all the pieces to shut down the Cowboys’ offense no matter how hot they’ve gotten since the end of the season. That is if Brad Childress and go-to Rooney Rule candidate Leslie Frazier open up the playbook and put a little creativity into the play calling.