After playing a Thanksgiving Day game that the defense would love to forget about, it is always nice to see the Minnesota Vikings offense next on the schedule. This 2016 schedule has afforded the Cowboys the benefit of playing some of the more ridiculously weak offenses in the entire league with the Bears, 49ers, Browns, and even the Eagles (twice) on the schedule, but the Vikings might be the weakest of them all in terms of things they do that stress a defense out.
The Cowboys, to their absolute credit, have been able to do very well against all of them, and Thursday was no exception. Aside from a rather passive and frustrating final drive where they allowed Sam Bradford to march the length of the field after not really demonstrating that ability all night, the Cowboys defense was quite physical and strong for much of the evening.
There were some isolated plays that you would rather close down and there was a big Anthony Hitchens interception that did not count due to yet another devastating penalty by the team -- this time Orlando Scandrick was the culprit with an illegal hands to the face penalty -- but the Vikings achieved the 2nd lowest yards per play against the Cowboys of anyone all season long. Only the Eagles did worse back on October 30th, so Rod Marinelli will be pleased with that.
They also, again, continued to ride their hot hand in the red zone, holding the Vikings to just 1 out of 3 where the most damage is done, and then held strong on the final 2-point conversion - more on that below.
WEEKLY DATA - VIKINGS
You will also notice above that the Cowboys got 3 sacks and could have had a few more. Only twice this season did the Cowboys exceed 3 sacks in a game - both against the teams from Ohio - so, here we wonder about the pass rush again. Are they showing some promise? It is difficult to say, because some weeks, Marinelli appears dead set on 3-man rushes instead of trying to get sacks. It honestly seems to be a matter of how they judge the offense's credentials in the week-long game planning sessions. If they fear the opponent and their weapons - say Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Washington, they drop 8 in coverage. If they don't - like Minnesota or Cleveland or Philadelphia - they send the rush hard and get sacks with 4 and sometimes 5 rushers.
SAM BRADFORD THROW CHART
Ask any Vikings fan and they will confess this is a rather typical throw chart for Bradford from this season. He, mostly by necessity (but we know his attributes by now) is a check-down king. 21 passes to the right flat alone! Otherwise, he would look for man coverage on the edges and take a shot - often against Anthony Brown. Also, the red dot at 20-yards depth was a great throw to his tight end in the end zone that wasn't caught. If it was, perhaps Minnesota wins, but that is the story of their year after the 5-0 start. Their offense is just not very scary. It might explain the entire global view of the Cowboys game-plan. They knew that the Vikings couldn't do much, so they were a bit more passive because of it.
SPLASH PLAYS - VIKINGS
16 splash plays is a solid effort with another one coming on the 2-point conversion. 0 takeaways from the defense, but they got one from special teams which technically goes on the ledger, although I do not add special teams plays in the splash plays. It would probably be helpful if I did, but it blurs the lines too much.
The thing I wanted to point out here is seen below. Sean Lee is now the leader again in splash plays. He narrowly finished 2nd in 2015 to DeMarcus Lawrence, but now has passed the unlikely David Irving to sit atop the rankings in 2016.
SPLASH PLAYS - SEASON TOTALS
The thing I love about Sean Lee's season is that he has played in 99.9% of snaps after a very strong attendance record in 2015. Now, he plays a collision position so things can change at any point, but the 2015 and 2016 seasons for Lee have been quite productive and he has been on the field throughout both (with the exception of missing the Tampa Bay game last year and being told not to play in Week 17) and should get credit for doing what he has done at a point in his career after he had been called "fragile" for a long time.
Give the man the credit he is due. He has been the defensive MVP for 2 straight seasons in my view. It is one thing to remain healthy and on the field. It is another thing to make plays every week. And yes, he is the only player to log a splash play in every single game this season.
I thought Thursday was the finest "linebacker" performance of the season. It was a really strong game from Anthony Hitchens, too. Hitchens has 5.5 splashes in the last 2 games and is now at 9 for the season. He isn't what Jaylon Smith is expected to be, but he is now not being exposed with routine. And, yes, even Damian Wilson is making plays nearly every week since the Eagles game. Is it possible this defensive depth is starting to happen?
Let's go to the tape on these linebackers:
Here is 57-Wilson and 59-Hitchens jamming up a pulling guard lead off the zone read for the Vikings. They do not run the ball well and they are outnumbered at the point of attack, but I like the aggressive play from Wilson to get in here and stop this play. He just needs to wrap this up better, but Wilson is starting to jam up these run plays with a bit of a routine.
How many times have we seen this from Sean Lee? I blame Bradford for telegraphing this play, but you can see Lee sniff this out and destroy it as he does anytime anyone tries it. This is that 3-man rush, and you have to like Lawrence's effort to get home off the right edge. He is trying.
Again, another plodding and slow-to-develop check-down from Bradford where the RB has literally no chance to do anything against Sean Lee in space. This is another tackle-for-loss where it seems like a better idea just to airmail the pass out of bounds. Loss of a bunch.
Cowboys benefit here from a fumbled exchange, but Hitchens was blitzing anyway and ran into yet another negative play for the Vikings. Hitchens is so much better now at trusting his eyes and playing at full speed than he was last season. And I like the unleashing of the LBs to get in there more, too.
Speaking of, here is a delay-blitz for Hitchens that turns into his sack. As a LB, you freeze as if you are in a zone and wait for your DE to run his portion of the stunt before trailing him to that outside lane. If the OL snoozes for a blink, as they surely do here, Hitchens can sneak in and get to Bradford. Pass protection is so complex when you have fast LBs. Maybe this is something that is starting to happen more as they all grow into their roles.
One more splash for Hitchens is breaking up this pass intended for Rudolph. He doesn't get boxed out and gets his hand in there to make the play. What a night for the 3rd year LB from Iowa. I bet he is still pleased about doing so well in his virtual homecoming game. Wilson from Minnesota, can be pleased as well.
Let's look at the pivotal 2-point conversion that decided this game:
This higher view shows the Cowboys in what appears to be 2-Man (2-Deep, Man Under). The Vikings look like they want to run Rudolph on a deep slant and then their slot guy, Adam Thielen underneath to the far pylon. That is where Bradford should have gone with the ball. When Thielen and McKinnon cross their routes, Scandrick and Lee get hung up for a moment and Thielen will get in if Bradford looks there.
Instead, he waits for Rudolph who is never going to be open on a deep slant into a 2-Deep look. I have no idea what Bradford thinks he sees.
Here is the end zone view. Tell me how Bradford thinks this has a chance.
Now, did he get hit in the face? Yes. Does it affect the throw? I doubt it, but it doesn't help. Should there have been a penalty? Yes. Should there also be a dead-ball false start on the left tackle for leaving early? Yes.
But, did either penalty change the fact that even with nobody around Bradford, he is passing to a player who is not open and has 2 guys on him? Really poor QB play there.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
They were very close to a great defensive effort, but that final drive hurt the review. So, did a number of smaller drives with 3rd down conversions. If they get that Hitchens INT, it would have been a huge difference maker.
Regardless, in taking another look at the game, I felt better about the defense than I did when I first viewed it. They need to clean a few things up, but against that opponent, they were satisfactory at minimum with 3 sacks and many more negative plays.
On to the Giants and a streak of 3 straight playoff opponents between here and the day after Christmas