By Yusuf Nakhooda
In another test for the Dallas Cowboys, comes their way Sunday evening as they play the Minnesota Vikings. The 5-3 Cowboys survived a slow first half to beat the New York Giants last Monday as Dak Prescott threw for three touchdown passes and Ezekiel Elliott ran for 139 yards .
Here are some things to look out for as to how this game might play out.
Dallas Cowboys Run Defense vs. Minnesota Vikings Run Offense:
For the first two seasons of his career, there was no questioning Cook's ability to run the ball, only his durability after having his rookie season cut short by a torn ACL four games in and missing five games in 2018 due to hamstring injury.
This season, however, Cook is not only thriving, he is showing himself more than capable of taking the workload that comes with being the featured back.
Cook is 106 yards from joining Adrian Peterson as the only 1,000-yard rushers in club history, and many have seized on this being a measuring stick game for Cook in terms of being compared to Elliott, who recently set the contract standard for running backs with his 6-year, $90 million extension.
Dallas' run defense did well to contain Saquon Barkley this time around, limiting him to 28 yards on 14 carries. The Cowboys gave up 100 rushing yards, but Giants quarterback Daniel Jones accounted for more than half that total (54), and wide receiver Golden Tate had a 16-yard carry.
The change of scenery also did Michael Bennett good as the veteran defensive lineman recorded a sack while helping plug the line of scrimmage. Bennett, who was traded to Dallas by New England after expressing displeasure with how he was being used, also had two tackles for loss in becoming only the 19th player to record at least one sack with five NFL teams.
Bennett adds a wrinkle for the Vikings to deal with since the success of their running game lies more with what Cook does than the offensive line clearing holes for him. He is at his most dangerous when able to bounce outside the tackles -- 19 of Cook's 125 carries have gone for 10 or more yards on such runs.
If the Cowboys can get penetration at the point of attack similar to Monday night against the Giants, they can be successful, but the Vikings also run a steady diet of play-action that can potentially neutralize that aggressive.
Dallas Cowboys Run Offense vs Minnesota Vikings Run Defense:
As Cook is coming into his own for the Vikings at running back, Elliott is already there for the Cowboys. He has already provided plenty of examples to justify his lucrative contract extension and enters this contest coming off his best game of the season.
Elliott has found success when he has been able to get outside his tackles, but he also has shown an ability to burst through a hole inside. He has averaged 5.9 yards on 30 carries on runs up the middle, with seven of them resulting in double-digit gains.
Elliott's runs up the gut is something that should concern the Vikings defense, because it is one area they appear soft based on numbers. Minnesota has yielded 5.4 yards per carry on 45 such rushes this season.
This is a strength-on-strength matchup. So far, only the Saints have been able to truly contain the Cowboys running game, which has racked up 122 or more yards in each of the last four games. In a matchup like this, play-calling becomes the most important variable.
That makes Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore the swing vote, and he has done a good job the last two weeks getting Elliott and company going. Dallas has averaged 5.47 yards in those wins and committed to the ground game with 66 rushes. Elliott is unafraid of getting those hard yards, and should be a difference-maker.
Minnesota Vikings Passing Offense vs Dallas Cowboys Passing Defense:
The Million Dollar question is can Kirk Cousins win a game for the Vikings with his arm. That has many Viking fans wondering and speculating.
Cousins clearly has the numbers of a winner, throwing for 2,217 yards and 16 touchdowns against only three interceptions with a 68.8 percent completion rate. Yet no quarterback may be as reliant on the success of his team's ground game given Mike ZImmer'smotto of run first pass later despite having Ty Diggs and Adam Thielen.
By and large, the Cowboys were solid in pass defense. Take away Barkley's 65-yard weave and dash on a swing pass, and no other Giants receiver had a catch for more than 17 yards. Dallas also matched a season high with five sacks, another example of Bennett's impact on the line allowing better matchups for Lawrence and Robert Quinn to exploit.
One wants to believe in the Cowboys secondary, but then one also remembers Sam Darnold threw a 92-yard touchdown pass and finished with 338 yards and two touchdowns with no receivers that come close to the caliber Cousins has in Thielen and Diggs.
In the end, though, this comes down to whether the Cowboys can generate a pass rush without blitzing and whether Cousins can stand in the pocket and deliver when there is pressure. He struggled to do that against the Chiefs and needs to be better in this game to help Cook be effective and give the Vikings a chance to win.
Dallas Cowboys passing offense vs Minnesota VIkings Pass Defense:
While everyone rightly raves about the Prescott-to-Cooper connection, let's take a moment to appreciate 37-year-old tight end Jason Witten. The future Hall of Famer has shown next to no rust following his year in the broadcast booth and is second on the team with 34 catches and third with 321 yards.
Witten's seamless re-entry into the offense is just one of many reasons the Cowboys lead the league in yards. Cooper is the primary contributor to that in the passing game, and second-year wideout Michael Gallup has been making steady progress when healthy, evidenced by 100-yard game against Green Bay earlier this season and key touchdown grab versus the Giants on Monday night.
The Vikings do not have a great secondary -- they have totaled just eight interceptions on the season -- which makes Hunter and Griffen winning their battles vital to any chance Minnesota has of slowing down Dallas' passing game.
Minnesota re-signed safety Andrew Sendejo, who was released by Philadelphia on Tuesday, to bolster the depth in the secondary, but it will take everyone to slow down Cooper, Witten and the rest of the Cowboys lethal passing game.
Both are good teams trying to be great, but one senses the gap is far smaller for Dallas to realize than Minnesota. Winning helps to that end, but there is a sense of calm on the Cowboys in contrast to the Vikings, who look more like the duck that is calm above the surface while pedaling furiously in the water.
There is still a degree of skepticism about the Cowboys making in-game adjustments, but that also holds true about the Vikings delivering when the going gets tough. The Cowboys kickers past and present could have a foot in deciding this, with Maher getting the slight edge with his range.
Final Score Prediction:
Dallas Cowboys 28 Minnesota Vikings 17
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