Last season, the Vikings had an answer for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Nose tackle Linval Joseph bludgeoned through center Tim Barnes and the Rams offensive line, snaring Todd Gurley with three run stops as part of his 10 combined tackles in the Vikings’ 21-18 overtime win.

However,Gurley, who finished with 89 rushing yards that game after four straight games with at least 125, has fallen short ofthe Vikings’ foe on Thursday. The Cowboys’ rushing attack, comprised of an impressive offensive line and rookie star running back Ezekiel Elliott, would be the toughest test for any NFL run defense to face this 2016 season.

That goes for the Vikings’ second-ranked scoring defense, which has bent at times against the run. To find success against Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,199 yards through 12 games, they’ll need a sequence of players to win individual matchups. Those dominoes begin falling with Joseph and Shamar Stephen, the Vikings’ two run-stopping tackles.

They were imperfect, but ultimately victors, in their last real test against a strong run game in Arizona. David Johnson had 89 rushing yards and a touchdown by halftime, including 30 yards in a three-play stretch without Joseph in the game.

As the losses have piled up, so have the rushing yards against the Vikings. In the 5-0 start, only one team surpassed 100 yards on the ground against their defense. They’ve allowed four such outings in the six games (1-5) since. And the Cowboys bring their 15-game team streak of at least 100 rushing yards into U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday night.

Expect to see a lot of the Joseph-Stephen tandem in the middle of the Vikings defense. They’ll have critical matchups to watch against Cowboys left guard Ronald Leary, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin. For good reason, the Cowboys run the ball (33 attempts/game) more than anybody and lead the league in time of possession.

Should the Vikings find a way to slow Elliott, it’ll likely start with Joseph (6-4, 329) and Stephen (6-5, 310) tying up more than two blockers together. If Frederick or Martin or Leary can get up to the Vikings linebackers, you’ll be home in time to catch Colbert.

Below is one example of how things go south when the first chain breaks in the Vikings’ defensive link. In the first half, Arizona is backed up to its own six-yard line. The Vikings use Tom Johnson and Stephen at tackle. Cardinals running back David Johnson rips off a nine-yard run when Tom Johnson is knocked to the turf. The guard easily reaches linebacker Eric Kendricks and the seam is created.

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Things went differently for Arizona in the second half, when Joseph was in the game for every first down until the Vikings took a late 13-point lead. Neither Joseph nor Stephen get anything in the box score, but they combine to hold three linemen in place while David Johnson is stuffed for a one-yard gain, forcing a third-and-4.

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