Though coverage of the white-hot Dallas Cowboys doesn’t suggest it, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have 51 teammates. They too have won 10 straight heading into Thursday’s game against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Fifty of those teammates aren’t named Dez. Another 45 don’t start on an offensive line that’s the envy of every other team.
Come to think of it, the Cowboys actually have 25 guys who play defense. Granted, they’re easy to overlook since they haven’t had a takeaway in four games and average a league-low 27 minutes, 10 seconds of action per contest.
“I think what stands out about them is their effort and how they fly to the ball,” Vikings fullback Zach Line said. “And No. 50 [linebacker Sean Lee]. He’s their playmaker.”
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli directs an unheralded group that features Lee as its only returning Pro Bowl player. A Tony Dungy disciple, Marinelli remains loyal to the more conservative Tampa-2 scheme as his base approach, although Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has noticed more man coverages and other wrinkles as the Cowboys have put together an NFL-best 10-1 record.
“The biggest thing is I think they play really, really hard,” Zimmer said. “They have a lot of movement up front. Sean Lee makes a ton of plays, a ton of tackles. He’s very instinctive. They’re solid in the secondary. They do a good job with the coverages they run, and playing off each other. They don’t typically give up very many big plays.”
The front line’s primary job is to shield Lee from blockers so that he can run free and make tackles. After a career-high 156 stops during his 2015 Pro Bowl season, Lee’s 124 stops are more than double the amount of Dallas’ next defender, free safety Byron Jones. In the 31-26 win over Washington on Thanksgiving Day, Lee had 20 tackles, fourth most in Cowboys history.
If the Vikings’ No. 2-ranked scoring defense can control Dallas’ high-powered and diverse offense — a big if considering the 1-5 slide the past six weeks — the Vikings’ offense will have chances to move the ball.
The Cowboys have the fifth-fewest takeaways (10) and third-fewest interceptions (four) in the league. They are 26th in yards allowed per play (5.93), 30th in pass defense (280.4), 25th in first downs allowed (21.3), 28th in sacks (20) and 22nd in third-down conversion percentage (41.86).
“I think every team presents the opportunities to go downfield,” said Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, who has stressed the need to stretch the field more of late. “I think you look at Washington and what they were able to do in the game last week. They hit them for quite a few big plays. So, I think it’s just a matter of getting the right plays dialed up at the right time against the right coverages.”
The Cowboys opened the Washington game by scoring a touchdown on their first drive for the fifth time this season. The Redskins countered with first downs on their second, fourth, seventh and eighth snaps. But Dallas held on third-and-17, forcing a 43-yard field-goal attempt that Washington missed.
All went well for the Cowboys defense, points-wise, for most of the first three quarters. Washington had only two field goals and trailed 17-6 when Dallas’ defense collapsed.
In Washington’s last three possessions, quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 20 of 22 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns for a 20-point fourth quarter. Tight end Jordan Reed caught eight passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns during those final three drives.
Washington’s 505 yards of offense dropped the Cowboys from 13th to 22nd in yards allowed per game. But, thanks in part to an offense that held the ball for 33½ minutes, the Cowboys still rank 10th in the most important category: points allowed (19.4).
“I think the challenge this week is to go out and play fast with them,” left guard Alex Boone said. “We have to set the tempo. We got to dictate how this game is going to go. We can’t let them get out to a fast start and push us around.
“If you want to win the game, you have to set the tempo as an offensive line and then dictate how the game is going to go.”
If the Vikings can be one of the few teams to do that, a prime-time audience will get to see more of the Cowboys not named Dak, Dez & Ezekiel.