DALLAS — It looked for a moment like the Minnesota Vikings’ magnanimous effort against Ezekiel Elliott was going to get washed away in a late-game secondary collapse that could throw the season into disarray.
Despite nose tackle Linval Joseph’s injury absence that threw Jaleel Johnson into a starting role, the Cowboys never got the run game going with one of the league’s most explosive young backs. It was a tremendous accomplishment that almost went for naught.
“Playing against him, playing against an O-line like that, you have to play sound ball,” said defensive tackle Shamar Stephen. “He’s big, bad. Can cut, make moves, bounce it, cut it back, he can do it all.”
Elliott had one of the most unproductive games of his career: 20 carries for 47 yards. His longest rush of the game? Six yards. It was the first time ever Elliott received 20 or more carries and failed to reach 50 yards. His 2.4 yards per attempt were the fourth-lowest of his career.
But it looked like it wasn’t going to matter. That is, until the Cowboys made the game’s most perplexing coaching decision.
Facing a 2nd and 2 at Minnesota’s 11, the Cowboys opted to run the ball twice, shying away from the passing game that had decimated the Vikings for most of the last three quarters.
Maybe it was clock management. Maybe an attempt to be unpredictable. But the run plays backfired, as did the ensuing fourth down, and the Vikings escaped Dallas with a win by the skin of their teeth.
“We had to do that,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “We had to make him be one dimensional. I wish we could’ve played better in pass defense that what we did, but we had to do that. They’re a good running football team, and I thought we did a real nice job with our run defense and the way we tackled.”
It’s hard to believe Dak Prescott had 18 incompletions on the night, because for members of the Vikings’ secondary, it had to seem like every ball thrown was hauled in for a first down. Dallas’s 28 catches went for an average of 14.2 yards per completion as Prescott passed for 397 yards, the most allowed by the Vikings since Week 4 of last season.
Per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Prescott completed four of the top 11 most improbable throws of Week 10. He was also given the longest time to throw of any Week 10 quarterback at 3.24 seconds behind his stellar offensive line.
On the game’s defining drive, which started at Dallas’s own 5-yard line, the Cowboys completed passes of 20, 10, 13, 20, eight and eight yards to get them in Minnesota’s red zone.
Further evidence why the decision to run twice was so confounding.
“Obviously we were trying to score a touchdown,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. “We got into a second and short situation and we tried to run it a couple of times just to get the first down and they did a good job defending the runs.”
So what were the Cowboys seeing?
The Vikings were going with their usual third-down defensive line package with inside rushers Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo. With Stephen and Johnson, the replacement starter, out of the game, Dallas saw a lighter front they might be able to run on, plus three cornerbacks in the nickel secondary.
“They’re trying to get manageable yards,” said Stephen. “They saw our nickel was out.”
Prescott gave Elliott the ball on a read-option handoff, but there appeared to be a blown assignment. Nobody blocked defensive end Danielle Hunter, who got the first contact on Elliott. Eric Kendricks flew forward to assist on the tackle for no gain, setting up 3rd and 2.
In four-down territory, the 2nd and 2 run was defensible against the smaller front. But the 3rd and 2 play-call was even more surprising. Prescott gave it to Elliott again, this time trying to turn the corner on the left side, but Odenigbo — playing the de facto nose tackle spot — surged past center Travis Frederick to make the tackle for loss.
“Ifeadi had a good tackle in at nose,” said Stephen, giggling. ” A 270-pound guy. In at nose.”
“I could just tell by their stances,” said Odenigbo, “that there might be some run play.”
That set up the pivotal 4th and 5, where the Cowboys went back to the air. But appropriately, it ended with the Vikings bottling up Elliott one last time. With the running back lined up in the slot against Kendricks, Prescott quickly pulled the trigger to Elliott once he realized the Vikings were crashing safety Anthony Harris to double Amari Cooper, who had torched the Vikings for 147 yards.
Kendricks went airborne to swat the pass away and effectively seal the Vikings’ biggest win of the season.
“I felt like we were aggressive,” Kendricks said after the game. “We studied, too. I feel like we had a mindset coming into this. We were physical. We had excellent pace. We had the mentality.”
Eric Kendricks led the NFL in pass breakups among LBs going into Week 10
— PFF (@PFF) November 11, 2019
The Vikings took their proverbial medicine in the passing game, in large part because of their strength against Elliott from the start. But their ability to stop a back who’d rattled off three consecutive 100-yard games without their gap-plugger Joseph was impressive. Rookie Armon Watts and second-year tackle Jalyn Holmes helped out inside as well.
But the measurable impact of their run-stopping showed up in time of possession. Even though Dallas ran one more play in the game than Minnesota (70-69), the Vikings owned the time-of-possession battle by almost seven minutes, controlling the clock in the second half with their own proclivity for running the football with Dalvin Cook, who went off for 183 scrimmage yards.
The Cowboys had scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions after they struck midway through the third quarter, but they’d only get two possessions from that point on aside from their Hail Mary heave at the end.
Dallas was more efficient on offense, but the Vikings wisely slowed the game down on the road, thanks to their ability to run the ball for first downs. The Vikings ran for nine of them in the game. The Cowboys? Zero. Even though they tried twice at the end.
“Coach Zimmer made the emphasis that it is going to start in the trenches,” said Odenigbo. “Whoever comes out on top will [decide] the outcome.”
Even after Dallas’s masterful aerial display, Zimmer’s emphasis proved to be correct in the moment of truth.