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.