DALLAS — It’s gameday in Big D, where the Minnesota Vikings look to bounce back against the 5-3 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. It’s their first regular season game at the new Cowboys Stadium since 2013, and the first time as Vikings coach that Mike Zimmer will square off against the team gave him his NFL start in 1994.
As usual, injuries could play a big part in the outcome.
The Vikings were extremely healthy last week in Kansas City coming out of their mini-bye, but they’re down a key starter on each side of the ball heading into Dallas.
Adam Thielen, who aggravated his hamstring injury in the first quarter versus the Chiefs, has been ruled out for the second time in three weeks. Meanwhile on the defensive side, nose tackle Linval Joseph is out with a knee injury after missing practice Thursday and Friday. He had practiced in full on Wednesday.
So which loss is more detrimental?
Thielen’s absence was certainly noticeable against Kansas City as the Chiefs focused on Stefon Diggs and held him to a single reception for four yards.
“You can definitely see a difference as far as what they like to do and what they try to take away,” Diggs said this week. “I get a lot more clouds to my side, but just kind of rolling with the punches as far as what I can do. If I can put my other guys in a position to get open or make plays then I’ll do so. When my opportunities do come, when they crawl up and we want to take a chance, you’ve got to take full advantage.”
Kirk Cousins overthrew Diggs on a deep shot in Kansas City, part of an uneven day for the quarterback without one of his favorite targets for the final three quarters. Bisi Johnson has stepped up to play the Thielen role, scoring two touchdowns in the last four games on routes that Thielen would ordinarily run, including a third-down scoring grab at Kansas City.
“He’s a professional,” said Diggs. “He does a good job of picking up things pretty fast for a young guy, and he does his job, as far as being well-coached. That’s what I attest it to.”
Johnson has shown the ability to run effective routes out of the slot, but if that’s his role against Dallas he’ll likely be matched against Jourdan Lewis, who is one of the top three slot corners in football, based on Pro Football Focus’s snaps per target and snaps per reception metrics.
The Vikings had their most success as an offense without Thielen in Detroit, where they scored 42 points. Diggs made seven catches for 143 yards, Johnson registered 40 yards and his first career touchdown, and four different targets found the end zone. In that game, the Vikings used an abundance of bunch formations that made it difficult for the Lions to organize their coverages and neutralize Diggs.
“Make them communicate,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said of the effect bunch sets can have, “so certainly on different down-and-distance you may move into a bunch or start in a bunch and get out of it. Ultimately, there are certain plays where you can line up and go, and there’s other ones where you want to maybe show a different formation. Again, just make that defense communicate.”
The Vikings have had almost a month now to contemplate their offense without Thielen. They had less time, however, to prepare without Joseph, who was ostensibly healthy on Tuesday and Wednesday during the team’s early gameplanning sessions and install periods.
It appears Minnesota will turn to Jaleel Johnson at nose tackle, keeping Shamar Stephen at 3-technique after trying them both out at the respective defensive tackle positions. Johnson has played between 14 and 26 snaps in each game this season in a rotational role.
“He’s much better playing the technique,” Zimmer said of the third year player. “Like I said before, he used to be a bull in a china shop and now he’s playing the technique. He plays hard. He’s been playing good all year long.”
It’s also possible rookie Armon Watts could make the active gameday roster for the first time to provide depth at tackle.
While Joseph isn’t as splashy as past years in generating interior pressure, he has still served the purpose of absorbing blockers, opening up blitzing gaps for linebackers and repelling ball carriers in short yardage — a big reason why the Vikings have allowed the third-fewest rushing first downs in the NFL. No Joseph provides one less obstacle for an already-stellar offensive line. Dallas has the fourth-most rushing yards in football and the second-lowest sack percentage.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott provides the clearest threat to a weakened Vikings defensive line, but as Zimmer pointed out earlier in the week, he’s not the only playmaker.
“It’s not just him,” Zimmer said. “They have (Amari) Cooper on the outside, 13, (Michael) Gallup, he makes it hard. I think (Dak) Prescott is throwing the ball really well. They have weapons at tight end. I don’t think you can just hang your hat on saying ‘Hey, we’re going to stop Ezekiel Elliott.’”
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