Can't Win Up Front? Can't Win Ball Games

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings welcomed Tony Romo, Jim Nantz, and the Dallas Cowboys to the biggest home beatdown in franchise history in nearly 60 years. After the emotionally charged overtime victory at Buffalo the week prior, Kevin O’Connell‘s Vikings paid homage to purple-and-gold teams of yesteryear by falling completely on their face the following week. There wasn’t a single player or phase that didn’t stink up U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. Having CBS cut to a different game early in the third quarter tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the quality of play from the hometown Vikings.

So let’s spend today discussing the basic prerequisites of what it takes to win football games at any level.

Before we dive into the numbers, you probably already know that America’s Team completely destroyed Minnesota’s offensive and defensive lines in Week 11. The Cowboys unapologetically ran the ball down the throat of the Vikings’ defense. On the off chance that offensive coordinator Kellen Moore decided to throw the ball, Ed Donatell’s league-leading pass rush never made life difficult for quarterback Dak Prescott. Danielle Hunter was the only starter who recorded more than a single pressure (with two), and the Vikings didn’t manage even one sack.

There were valid concerns over Minnesota’s run defense slipping at the wrong time before the Cowboys came to town. After giving up a season-high 175 yards on the ground against the Buffalo Bills, the Vikings were pummeled to the tune of 151 rushing yards — the third-most yards they’ve allowed this season. Dallas’ thunder-and-lightning combo platter of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard collectively recorded the following on Sunday:

  • 30 carries
  • 122 rushing yards
  • two rushing touchdowns
  • seven targets
  • seven receptions
  • 114 receiving yards
  • two receiving touchdowns
  • 6.4 yards/touch

Over the past three games, the Vikings are allowing 154.3 rushing yards per game, the eighth-worst in the National Football League. General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah prioritized Minnesota’s efforts against the run by making nose tackle Harrison Phillips his first-ever free-agent signing during the offseason. Although the former Buffalo Bill challenged his old teammates with a 20% pressure rate in Week 10’s victory, he was thoroughly dominated by Cowboys guard Zack Martin on Sunday.

Minnesota’s anemic efforts against the run the past few games could be attributed to being without defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. His return to practice on Monday, albeit in a limited capacity, was definitely an encouraging sign for Minnesota’s defense. But you won’t catch me playing the Injury Excuse Card. Simply put, that’s life in the NFL. And no one person should be responsible for such a noticeable dropoff in arguably the most important defensive aspect of football — especially when Minnesota’s front is fortunate enough to have studs in Za’Darius Smith, Hunter, and Phillips to theoretically help overcome Tomlinson’s absence.

Let’s shift gears and talk about Minnesota’s embarrassing performance out of its offensive line. The Vikings came into Week 11 with a concerted effort to run the ball against Dallas’ basement-dwelling run defense — the same Cowboys that allowed a combined 447 rushing yards over its previous two games to the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

Despite the Vikings having relative success on their opening drive by putting the offense in a promising third-and-3 after two consecutive runs by Dalvin Cook, Micah Parsons quickly reminded the football world just how much of a game-wrecker he can be. This was the first sack that potential Pro Bowl left tackle Christian Darrisaw allowed all season.

Darrisaw allowed another sack a few plays later when Dorance Armstrong got home on another third-and-3. Shortly after, Minnesota’s left tackle entered concussion protocol and would not return to the field. He ended the game with a 22.2% pressure rate allowed and two sacks allowed.

The struggles for Minnesota’s offensive line weren’t exclusive to Darrisaw. Take a look at how the rest of the offensive line fared against one of the best pass-rushing fronts in all of football.

If there’s somehow a positive takeaway from this, it’s encouraging that rookie right guard only allowed an 8.1% pressure rate. On the year, he’s allowing a league-high 9.5% pressure rate and currently leads all NFL offensive lineman with 40 pressures allowed this year.

Kirk Cousins faced pressure on 60% of his dropbacks on Sunday. To further illustrate just how astronomically high that is, remember the Super Bowl a few years ago between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers? The same game where Patrick Mahomes was running for his life seemingly the entire game with both of his starting tackles — Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz — out with injuries? According to Pro Football Focus, Mahomes was under pressure on 55.4% of his dropbacks that day.

While it’s easy to cast some of the blame on Cousins for his inability to overcome a chaotic pocket with consistent pressure, Mahomes’s 27.4 passer rating under pressure in that particular Super Bowl against Tampa Bay tells you everything you need to know about how sustainable your offense can be when faced with such an incredibly high level of pressure.

With Darrisaw having already been ruled out for Thursday’s quick turnaround against the New England Patriots, the Vikings will need all hands on deck against Bill Belichick’s ball club. This is a team that presents the same type of challenges that Minnesota couldn’t overcome against Dallas. New England edge rusher Matt Judon leads the NFL with 13 sacks and has the fourth-most pressures in the NFL with 47. His pass-rushing partner, Deatrich Wise, has the 13th-most pressures in the league with 38. He also has 6.5 sacks to his name.

Backup left tackle Blake Brandel has struggled while filling in for Darrisaw over the past two games. He’s allowed an 11.3% pressure rate and three sacks on 53 pass-blocking opportunities. To properly account for New England’s dynamic pass rush, don’t be surprised if O’Connell decides to hit the more button on 12-personnel packages with Johnny Mundt sharing the field with T.J. Hockenson. That way, Mundt can help chip on either Judon or Wise, thus allowing Cousins to have that necessary extra sliver of time to get the ball out.

And, similar to the Cowboys, the Patriots’ offense wants to grind their opponents out with their running game, led by Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris. New England’s ground attack is in the middle of the NFL pack. But with Harris coming back from injury in a big way last week with 93 yards on just 10 touches, the Pats should have runners with fresh legs and big-play opportunities against a vulnerable Vikings defense.

Everything in football starts up front. Unless the Vikings can experience substantial improvements with both lines, this has the potential to snowball into a more pressing issue on Thursday night against the Patriots.

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