Sunday is as critical a game for the defense as they have had.
Some weeks, we can alibi for the defense and say that they did their part. I would not say that happened against Tennessee. Sure, the Titans were gifted 2 Touchdowns in the 4th Quarter, but should Vince Young be able to put up 17 points against your defense in your stadium in the first 18 minutes? An 80-yard drive to start the game coming off a bye week? Gentlemen, I do believe that some of you might have underestimated the Titans aerial attack. Like I said earlier in the week, I am allowed to do that as I do not play or coach for the Cowboys. But, they must respect each and every team on their schedule or else they risk being in critical condition before the State Fair ends. Outrageous.
The way Orlando Scandrick, Mike Jenkins, and Alan Ball played, you have to believe that teams are going to continue to try to ask difficult questions of the secondary in weeks to come. Unless they provide answers, the questions will keep coming. That is how the NFL works.
Enter the Minnesota Vikings: A team that is in similar condition, but is playing at home and does remember quite clearly the ease in which they dispatched the Cowboys in their meeting in the 2009 Playoffs last January.
My memories from the playoff game last year from the defensive perspective would be the following: Adrian Peterson did not really hurt the Cowboys much at all, adding to my theory that nobody runs on the 2009 Cowboys. Since then, Arian Foster and Chris Johnson have had little trouble running on the 2010 version of the Cowboys. Also, Brett Favre was on fire, hitting a covered Sydney Rice for a Touchdown twice when he was blanketed. Favre was amazing that day, never coming close to an interception or being bothered by a pass rush. The main issues last season in this playoff game were on the offense, but the defense did not look the part of a dominating defense.
Things change, and to help, the Vikings are a mess on offense. Despite having a roster any fantasy football owner would love, it doesn't make sense right now. They are trying to figure it out on the fly, but it looked ridiculous for 3 Quarters on Monday Night and was only saved when Favre pulled out 2 ridiculous 3rd and a mile throws in his typical magician fashion.
But, they are trying to explain to Randy Moss the offensive playbook, hoping that the offensive line can hold up, praying for Sydney Rice's health, and watching Favre hold his arm and wince as he battles tendonitis. Things are not going as planned up there, either.
The defense has an opportunity in this case because there surely is not much confidence in the Vikings Offensive Unit. But, they must generate some big plays, and there are very serious questions around the league asking whether the Cowboys just don't have dynamic players at key positions that lead to turnovers. Are the Middle Linebackers and Safeties ordinary in Dallas? In January, Keith Brooking had a bullseye on his chest as the Vikes tried all sorts of match-ups to get him isolated in space. Sensabaugh was the victim of a long TD. Alan Ball spent most of last Sunday looking lost, and Scandrick was picked on in the nickel where Percy Harvin lines up. You can understand the issues.
1) - Blitz Must Get there - NFL Average against the Blitz is 82.9, Drew Brees against the Blitz in 2010 is 120.8. Tony Romo in 2010 against the Blitz is 103.4. But, Brett Favre is 29th in the NFL with a passer rating of 60. One problem; with very few exceptions, we know the Cowboys are not a very good blitzing team. They keep things simple, seldom send DBs, and seldom get there with their Middle Linebackers. If you give a healthy Favre all day, he picks you apart, so the Jets and Saints were sure not to give him all day. But can the Cowboys blitz like the Jets or Saints? Certainly not. Exotic blitz looks tend to cause Favre issues. But, do the Cowboys have exotic blitzes? If so, break them out sooner rather than later on Sunday afternoon.
2) - Turn the Ball Over - In 2009, in his first year with the Minnesota Vikings, Brett Favre threw only 7 interceptions in the regular season as he registered his finest QB rating of his career (107.2) at the age of 40. It seemed impossible. What's more impossible? Could it be that his worst QB rating of his career happens the very next year with many of the very same parts? Well, he is already on his way as he has thrown 7 interceptions in 4 games. In fact, to equal his 2009, he would have to throw 28 Touchdowns and 0 interceptions over the final 12 games of the season. Last year, in the playoff game against the Cowboys, he toyed with the Dallas secondary, throwing 4 TD's - many from long range - and 0 interceptions. In fact, the Cowboys defense did not come close to causing him distress or discomfort. The good news for Favre and the Vikings is that he playing the Cowboys - the team that throughout football turn the ball over less than anyone in the sport. Sadly, this is not just a 2010 trait, but this is a Wade Phillips trait. Here is the chart for the season to this juncture:
|Cowboys Turnovers||Opponents Turnovers|
|Game||Fumbles Lost||INTS||Giveaways||Fumbles Rec||INTS||Takeaways||+/-|
|L @ Wash||1||0||1||0||0||0||-1|
|L vs Chi||1||2||3||0||0||0||-3|
|W @ Hou||0||0||0||1||2||3||+3|
|L vs Ten||0||3||3||0||0||0||-3|
Since Wade Phillips was hired as the Cowboys Head Coach, exactly one team (Washington) has fewer takeaways than the Cowboys do - this is getting quite ridiculous:
2007-Present Fewest Team Takeaways
It is nice to play a QB who is known for turning the ball over, but it is not worth anything if you cannot turn him over. If Jay Cutler and Vince Young didn't give you the ball, will Favre?
3) - Anthony Spencer vs Phil Loadholt - With his 1st Sack now under his belt in 2010, Spencer must eat up Loadholt around the edge when the opportunity presents itself. I think the Oklahoma tackle is no better than a NFL backup from what I have seen as he is continuously beaten in both the pass and run games. Spencer will face help as the Vikings self evaluate to know about this issue, but this is still a match-up that must be won by Spencer. If he cannot get anything done against that sort right-side of the Vikings line, then the Cowboys will not be very good on defense.
4) - Control Moss and Harvin Explosives - We saw quite clearly in the Jets game that the Vikings could not string a drive together against a pressure defense. But, they always have a puncher's chance with the ol' gunslinger back there taking chances that your blitz won't get him everytime. Moss will demand some help over the top and Harvin will probe in the interior on many occasions back where he belongs. Obviously, this is there trump card, and without explosives, the Vikings are just not in sync. But, they hit the jackpot in the 4th Quarter on Monday Night enough to show the true power of 1 play to swing a game back into their favor. Moss is obviously enough to open things up for both Harvin and their fine seam Tight End Visanthe Shiancoe. Again, the middle linebackers and the safeties will be tested early and often with Moss keeping the corners plenty busy.
Here, I want to encourage you to read TC Fleming's look at the Vikings offense . I think it is solid.
Summary: They can be so good (Houston and New Orleans) and they can be so frustrating (Chicago and Tennessee). I think it is crazy for us to assume that the defense is in for a big night, but they do always seem to respond with the back against the wall. But, at the Metrodome, against this team, they might need a gimpy Favre to truly limit the Vikings offense. And the way to encourage his gimpy-ness is to cause him plenty of pressure and duress.