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Sunday night's fight: Dak Prescott vs. the Vikings pass rush

Much of the talk ahead of Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Cowboys centered on the heavyweight showdown between running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook.

Cook outperformed Elliott, so the Vikings won and that’s that? Perhaps in a world where Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t throw remarkable passes that were incredibly caught. If this is how Prescott is consistently ascending, the Vikings defense just faced its best quarterback since Aaron Rodgers in September.

The heavyweight fight of Sunday night was really between Prescott and a Vikings’ pass rush spearheaded by defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, and an aggressive and varied play caller in Mike Zimmer.

1. Prescott’s nearly 400-yard night was not a product of the Vikings defense ‘selling out’ to stop Ezekiel Elliott. 

The Vikings only ‘stacked’ an eight-man box on two of Elliott’s 20 attempts, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and Elliott had plenty of chances against six-man fronts like this below. So give some credit to defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (#93), who controlled the line against Cowboys right guard Zack Martin (#70) — a three-time All-Pro pick — on this one-yard run off a quarterback option.

Stephen stonewalls Martin for one of the 12 Elliott runs that gained three yards or fewer.

The Vikings run defense stepped up when it mattered most. Elliott finished with eight rushing yards on six carries in the fourth quarter.

Cowboys play caller Kellen Moore drew plenty of criticism for this final play call in the red zone while trailing 28-24 with a quarterback throwing at will against inconsistent Vikings coverage. But theoretically you’d trust Elliott out of the shotgun against a six-man front needing two yards with three timeouts and more than a minute remaining.

On the third-and-2 play, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (#95) knifed between left guard Connor Williams and center Travis Frederick, who no longer looks like an All-Pro center, for the huge run stop. Linebacker Eric Kendricks deflected the fourth-down pass on the following play.

2. Instead, Prescott outgunned the Vikings’ pass rush in what was the true heavyweight fight of Sunday night. 

Rushed throw, incomplete pass — that’s how the first three Vikings blitzes produced, so Zimmer kept his foot on the gas (including six blitzes in a 13-throw span in the fourth quarter).

But Prescott had haymakers, too, with big plays against extra rushers. He completed 6 of 12 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns versus the blitz.

None gained more yardage than this 24-yard throw to Cowboys receiver Randall Cobb (#18) in the fourth quarter, which brought Dallas to the doorstep of a possible game-tying touchdown (Vikings led 28-21).

The Vikings’ pre-snap trickery hurt them here as safety Harrison Smith (#22) creeps into the box, despite being assigned to cover deep centerfield. He’s playing off safety Anthony Harris (#41) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54) disguising their blitzes, but in the end Smith is caught turned around as Cobb crosses underneath him for the 24-yard gain.

3. Prescott’s second touchdown, the 22-yard toss to Cobb before halftime, came against an unblocked Danielle Hunter. 

Once again, Prescott made a play when the Vikings defense decided to bare its teeth. Neither Kendricks nor Barr assist in coverage, with either seemingly assigned to blitz or spy Prescott. Perhaps their goal is to crowd the middle and achieve one-on-one or unblocked edge rushers, which is easy to see why because Hunter and Griffen are playing like the NFL’s best edge duo.

Because of the call, every member of the Vikings secondary is left alone. Prescott appears to check into a play at the line, sending all three receivers to his right on vertical routes. He drops a dime to Cobb over Mackensie Alexander (who’s in position) for the touchdown, with Hunter rushing unblocked and Stephen Weatherly jumping offside.

4. Debut of the ‘dime’ package included corner Holton Hill, and gave the Vikings more ways to evolve the pass rush. 

From seven-man blitzes to three-man rushes, the Vikings tried to often change what Prescott had in front of him. Below is an example of the latter. Despite just three rushers against five blockers, Prescott is  still sandwiched between Odenigbo and Hunter, in part because of how Barr (#55) is deployed as a spy to prevent Prescott from running for the first down on this third-and-12 play.

The Vikings debuted this ‘dime’ package, featuring a sixth defensive back in Hill (#24) and one fewer defensive lineman.

With three downed linemen, the threat of a five- or six-man rush is there as Smith, Kendricks and Barr crowd the line.

The Vikings put Hill (12 snaps), their tallest corner outside of Xavier Rhodes, on Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, which resulted in an earlier third-down pass deflection by Hill. They did so again on this play.

In the clip below, Smith (who blitzed on three previous plays) bails from the left tackle into deep zone coverage opposite safety Anthony Harris.

Prescott steps up and finds Cooper for the 20-yard tiptoe sideline catch against Hughes (#21) for the first down. But the Vikings get one of nine hits on Prescott on this throw, in part because Barr holds Cowboys right guard Zack Martin to give Hunter the one-on-one against the right tackle. The catch overshadows effort by Odenigbo (over center) to get the hit.

Two plays later, Prescott threw a 23-yard touchdown to Michael Gallup on a catch and run against an apparent busted Vikings coverage, in which Barr followed Witten up the seam, vacating the area of the play while Kendricks trailed.

5. Remember the aforementioned 24-yard pass to Cobb with the Vikings leading 28-21? Everson Griffen’s spin move helped prevent the touchdown. 

Griffen went to his spin move often against Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith, and it helped him collect seven pressures (including a 0.5 sack) on Prescott. Griffen and Hunter were involved on 17 of the Vikings’ 21 pressures on Sunday night, benefiting from pre-snap alignment and movement that helped them get one-on-one matchups on the edges like this 2nd-and-goal play below.

Prescott is forced to throw this pass away as Dallas eventually settled for a field goal and 28-24 deficit.

Through 10 games, Cook is producing like Peterson in 2012

Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at three players who stood out, three concerns for the team, three trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:

This is my eighth year covering the Vikings, which means I spent my first year on the beat (2012) witnessing what’s been the gold standard of individual performance during those eight years, and perhaps over a much longer stretch of Vikings history: Adrian Peterson’s incredible MVP season in 2012.

Here’s a reminder of some of the particulars, in case time has dulled them: Peterson averaged 6.0 yards per carry that season, all while carrying the ball 348 times and facing eight-man boxes more than any back in the NFL. He ran for 1,322 yards on 197 carries in the last eight games of that season, carrying a Vikings team that had been 3-13 the previous year to the playoffs, and he did it while playing through a sports hernia that some believe he sustained in his rush back from ACL surgery the previous December.

I say all this to establish how high a precedent Peterson set that year, before writing what might seem like heresy: At least on some levels, Dalvin Cook has a chance to eclipse what Peterson did in 2012.

With 2,097 rushing yards and 217 receiving yards in 2012, Peterson accounted for 2,314 yards on 388 touches — an average of 5.96 yards per touch. Through 10 games, Cook has 1,415 yards (991 rushing and 424 receiving) on 243 touches, which is an average of 5.82 yards per touch. He’s had 12 more rushing attempts and 19 more touches through 10 games than Peterson did in 2012, and has accounted for 132 more yards, with three more touchdowns and the same number of fumbles.

Now, what set Peterson apart as he closed on Eric Dickerson’s record that season was his otherworldly stretch of games in December, particularly his 409 combined rushing yards in two games against the Packers. He also was playing on a team less talented than the current Vikings group, and put up the bulk of his numbers after Percy Harvin’s ankle injury took away the team’s other prominent weapon. But by producing at his current level with a workload that has actually eclipsed Peterson’s in the first 10 games of 2012, Cook has quelled many of the questions raised by many (including me) before this season. We’ll see if he can match Peterson’s stirring finish to the 2012 season — but if he comes close, he might find himself in the conversation for some of the awards Peterson claimed that year.

Here are two other Vikings players who stood out during the team’s 28-24 win over the Cowboys on Sunday night:

Eric Kendricks: Mike Zimmer said after the game the linebacker has been more aggressive in pass coverage this season than in recent years, and though that tendency comes with some side effects — “He jumped up on one and they threw the ball behind him tonight, too,” Zimmer said after the game — Kendricks’ fourth-down pass breakup of Dak Prescott’s throw to Ezekiel Elliott effectively saved the game. He’s got 11 for the season, the most among NFL linebackers. “He’s always been pretty good in coverage,” Zimmer said.

Kirk Cousins: The performance Cousins had on Sunday night wasn’t his flashiest — he threw into tight coverage less frequently than any QB in Week 10, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — but isn’t what he did for the Vikings on Sunday night exactly what everyone’s been waiting to see from him? Cousins had a turnover-free performance, in a prime-time road game against a team with a winning record, and he kept the Vikings’ offense moving by going 7 of 10 for 80 yards and a touchdown (with one sack) on third downs. The fact he did it without Adam Thielen, behind an offensive line that lost Brian O’Neill for a handful of snaps and Josh Kline to a concussion, made it all the more impressive. Cousins has been the first to say that wins in these types of games are the only thing that will change the narrative about him, and even if he had something of a complementary role to Cook, he filled it admirably.

Three areas of concern:
The Vikings’ secondary: With Trae Waynes out because of an ankle injury on Sunday night, the Cowboys apparently went into the game planning to pick on Mike Hughes, and they targeted him early and often. Hughes is in his first full NFL season — after tearing his ACL last year — and on a few of the balls the Cowboys completed on him, there’s not much else Hughes could have done (either because Prescott made a great throw, Amari Cooper employed his nimble sideline footwork or, as many fans pointed out, might have pushed off on several occasions). Still, the Vikings are going to have to contend with the fact teams are going after their corners, with or without a healthy Waynes. They’ve won every time they’ve allowed a 300-yard passer this season, and some of the yards they’ve given up (to Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz, for example) came in games the Vikings had already salted away. Prescott is also one of the NFL’s best at extending plays, but the Vikings’ next road game features a QB with a similar skill set (Russell Wilson), and their secondary will have to be ready.

Receiving options other than Cook: The Vikings knew they’d be able to hit the Cowboys with some screen passes, given how aggressive Dallas’ pass rush is, but Cousins had trouble finding consistent targets beyond the running back (who had 86 yards on seven receptions). Stefon Diggs’ circus catch of a 27-yard completion was Cousins’ longest throw of the night, and according to Next Gen Stats, only Irv Smith got more than the league average of 2.83 yards of separation from a defender (Bisi Johnson was at 2.4 yards, Kyle Rudolph was at 2.1, Diggs was at 1.83 and Laquon Treadwell at 0.66). The Vikings are likely hoping to get Adam Thielen back by the Seattle game after the bye (if not this Sunday against Denver), and they’ll need him down the stretch. Diggs also had a first-quarter end zone throw in his hands until he was hit by Leighton Vander Esch.

Pass protection: Our Mark Craig charted Cousins as being under pressure on eight of his 22 first-half dropbacks; Cousins completed five passes for 53 yards on those plays, and was only sacked once for the night, but was hit seven times in a game where he worked largely with a lead and an effective run game. The Cowboys have a talented group of pass rushers, and the Vikings kept them from doing any real damage, but given how durable Cousins has been, they’d likely prefer to keep him from getting hit a little less than he was on Sunday.

Three trends to watch:
Cousins outside the pocket: The Vikings have made bootlegs and rollouts a staple of their offense all season — one of the first things Zimmer said about Cousins in his introductory press conference was how good the quarterback is on bootlegs — but they worked them to great effect on Sunday night, especially on third downs. Cousins rolled to his right for a 15-yard strike to Bisi Johnson on a 3rd-and-6 in the third quarter (on what turned out to be the last pass he’d throw before 10 straight runs finished off the Vikings’ touchdown drive), and he rolled left before lofting an off-balance throw to the back of the end zone for Kyle Rudolph’s first of two TDs. “We didn’t hit any big explosive [plays] on the bootlegs, but they were there for the most part, and I think it helped change the spot you’re throwing from, just so they can’t pin their ears back,” Cousins said. “We didn’t want to get in a dropback game here — I think that would have been a nightmare. Fortunately, we ran the ball, and it took pressure off that straight dropback.”

How the Vikings make up for the loss of Linval Joseph: The nose tackle is expected to be out at least through the bye week, after sources said he had an operation on his meniscus this week, and though the Vikings did an impressive job against Elliott on Sunday night, they’ll likely hope they don’t have to live without Joseph for too long. Jaleel Johnson, who started in Joseph’s place, played 43 snaps on Sunday night, with Shamar Stephen playing 41, Jalyn Holmes logging nine and rookie Armon Watts splitting a sack with Everson Griffen in his seven-snap NFL debut. Games like the matchup against Seattle on Dec. 1 will test their defensive front, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Vikings distribute their workload if Joseph isn’t back by that point.

The Vikings’ fourth-down decisions: When the Vikings got stopped on the Cowboys’ 2 on third down at the end of the third quarter, there was little hesitation on their sideline about what to do next: They decided to go for it, rather than kicking a field goal and taking three points to go up 23-21, and Cook scored on fourth down (the Vikings pushed the lead to 28-21 with a two-point conversion). According to EdjSports, Zimmer’s decision to go for it was the third-best coaching move of Week 10, making it 5.1 percent more likely the Vikings would go on to win than if they’d kicked a field goal. It follows a week where he decided to punt near midfield in Kansas City, before opting to go for it on a fourth down in Chiefs territory. Zimmer said last Monday he operates more by feel than analytics in his fourth-down decisions, and is considering a number of factors other than what the data would tell him to do. Still, it’s interesting he’s made bolder decisions in back-to-back weeks, given how conservative he’s typically been on fourth downs. The fact those decisions have worked could make him more likely to bet on his offense in the future.

And one big question:
Does Sunday’s victory mean we can put the questions about the Vikings’ ability to win big games to bed? Nobody in the Vikings’ locker room made much of an attempt to hide how much they needed a win like the one they got on Sunday night, and it will go a ways toward calming the narrative about Cousins not being able to win big games (especially given the fact the Vikings were underdogs on Sunday night). They’ll face a tougher road test in their next game away from U.S. Bank Stadium — a Monday night matchup in Seattle — than they got on Sunday night, against a Cowboys team that’s lost two of its last three at home. It’ll probably take a few wins like this one to change the perception (and the objective data that fuels some of the perception). But what the Vikings did on Sunday night was a start — and it’s worth noting their biggest road wins under Mike Zimmer (in Green Bay at the end of 2015, back-to-back games against Detroit and Atlanta in 2017) have come in years where they won the division. At the very least, they’re putting themselves in position to have more cracks at proving their legitimacy.

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