I'm working on a story on the Vikings' pass rush for tomorrow's paper. Or lack of a pass rush, at least by the Vikings' standards the past couple seasons.
The Vikings led the league in sacks a year ago with 48. Through four games, they had 16 sacks, including eight in a Week 4 win over the Packers. This year, they have six sacks, led by Ray Edwards' 1 1/2.
A year ago, Jared Allen led the team with 6 1/2 sacks through four weeks, including 4 1/2 against the Packers in Week 4. This year, Allen has just one sack. And we've yet to see how he'll tweak his calf-roping sack dance now that the NFL says he'll be fined if he goes to one knee. (Wonder if Alan Page ever had to worry about that?).
I asked Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier if Allen's quiet start meant it was a bad start. (Just because a guy isn't calf-ropin' every other play doesn't necessarily mean he's not playing well).
"He's playing well," Frazier said. "What's happening with Jared is that he's still in a lot of situations where there are backs chipping and tight ends to his side. What it does is help other guys and helps our pass defense. Our pass defense is really improved primarily beause the type of blocks we're getting from offenses right now. But [Allen] is going to have a bust-out game, and hopefully it will be this weekend."
The pass rush is the key to Sunday's game, assuming the Vikings can get back to stopping the run like they normally do. The Vikings are 14th against the run after spending the last four years ranking first, first, first and second.
If the Vikings can stop a Cowboys' running game that isn't dominant, then Sunday's game could resemble last January's 34-3 Vikings win in the NFC divisional playoff game at the Metrodome. The Vikings set franchise postseason records for team sacks (six), sacks by an individual (Ray Edwards, three) and fewest points allowed.
This year's defense has played well enough to be 4-0, but it's been more of a bend-but-don't-break unit as opposed to a dominant one. While it's pass defense ranks an unusually high sixth, the pass rush ranks 29th in sacks per pass play.
With a depleted secondary that doesn't intercept passes and an offense that can't engage in a shootout, the Vikings can't afford to let the Cowboys' No. 3-ranked passing attack get comfortable. Tony Romo will melt under pressure like he did last year. But if there's no pressure, he could destroy the Vikings. Although the Cowboys lost last week to Tennessee, they still put up 511 yards of offense. That was the most since they had 513 in a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Vikes in 1998. The Cowboys also had a 400-yard passer (Romo, 406) and a 100-yard rusher (Felix Jones, 109) in the same game for the first time in franchise history.
The Cowboys should have a winning record, but they're the sixth-most penalized team, and their minus-4 turnover margin is worse than all but three teams, including the Vikings (minus-6).
Obviously, 1-4 is a huge hole. But the league is too mediocre to rule out even the loser of this game. Heading into this week's games, 11 of the NFC's 16 teams are in first place or within a game of first place. Amazingly, the Vikings and Cowboys arre two of the five that aren't.