Is Minnesota's Run D Slipping At the Wrong Time?

Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The 8-1 Minnesota Vikings host the 6-3 Dallas Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. Coming off a victory — their seventh consecutive — in arguably the NFL’s “Game of the Year” so far, the Purple and Gold welcome CBS’s A-Team of Tony Romo and Jim Nantz for Week 11’s biggest showdown.

In years past, this type of game would present all the makings of an age-old letdown following the emotional highs of last week’s rollercoaster win at Buffalo. But with the unique culture that currently exists within the Vikings’ locker room, Skoldiers shouldn’t be living in the past with the inevitable doom on their minds — especially with our friends in Las Vegas declaring that the Vikings are 1.5-point home underdogs. Instead, Vikings fans should be giddy about having their hometown team on football’s biggest stage with (hands down) the league’s best broadcasting tandem calling the proceedings.

The Cowboys present many challenges for the Vikings. To come out of Sunday with their eighth-straight win, they’ll need to keep one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing fronts in check. Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence have combined for 69 pressures and 13 sacks. For context, Minnesota’s Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter collectively have 93 pressures and 15.5 sacks to their names. Make no mistake about it, no one has a better edge-rushing tandem at the moment than the Minnesota Vikings.

But for all the accolades that Minnesota’s defense has earned with its pass rush this season, their shortcomings of late against the run are cause for concern, especially in this particular matchup. Last week against the Bills, the Vikings surrendered a season-high 175 yards on the ground. Granted, quarterback Josh Allen accounted for 84 of those yards on just six carries. And you won’t find many quarterbacks in the game today who present more of a challenge with their legs than Allen. In Week 9, the Washington Commanders outgained the Vikings 137 to 56 on the ground. Over the past three weeks, the Vikings find themselves in the bottom half of the league (18th) at stopping the run with an average of 130 yards per game.

Since Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott went down with a thumb injury in Week 1, Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has leaned heavily on his backfield. On the season, the Cowboys are eighth in rushing with 134.6 yards per game. And they’re even better of late. Over their past five games, Dallas is averaging 159 rushing yards.

Offensively, the Cowboys have prioritized the running game, with fourth-year running back Tony Pollard taking the reins from Ezekiel Elliott. Pollard has been outstanding with the backfield essentially to himself, with an injured Elliott sidelined over the past two games. The former Memphis running back accounted for 36 carries, 246 yards, four touchdowns, and an eye-popping 6.8 yards per carry against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. It’s worth noting that both of Minnesota’s divisional rivals are some of the worst rushing defenses in the league at 28th and 25th, respectively.

On the year, Pollard is one of the more efficient running backs in the entire league. Out of 31 running backs who have received 110-plus touches, Pollard leads all of them with 6.4 yards per touch. With Elliott reportedly scheduled to make his return this week against the Vikings, it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys distribute the workload between the two backs.

Do they continue to feed the hot hand in Pollard? Or revert to the highly compensated Elliott as the lead dog? Despite Pollard’s outstanding play this season, Jerry Jones hasn’t been shy about how much Elliott means to his beloved (How ‘Bout Them?!) Cowboys.

Jerry’s conviction for Elliott could certainly be an advantage for the Vikings this week. If the Cowboys decide to give a majority of the touches to the bruising, powerful former Ohio State running back instead of the electrifying and dynamic Pollard, I’m guessing Minnesota’s defense wouldn’t take too much umbrage with that.

Regardless of how the Cowboys’ backfield shakes out this week, it needs to be mentioned that the Vikings are almost two different teams when defending the run at home, as opposed to on the road.

At home this season, the Vikings are allowing just 101.5 rushing yards per game, good for sixth-best in the NFL. In Minnesota’s last two home games, they kept Justin Fields and Kyler Murray‘s rushing attacks in check to the tune of 78 yards in both games. And to be clear, Prescott is no longer the rushing threat that he used to be during his first four NFL seasons when he averaged over 5.3 yards per carry. Since 2021, Prescott is averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt.

In road games, Minnesota ranks 20th in allowing 131.8 ground yards per game.

With U.S. Bank Stadium rockin’ and rollin’ on Sunday, the Vikings need to continue to operate as one of the league’s most difficult teams to run on, at least at home. They’ll undoubtedly have their hands full trying to corral Elliott’s physical running style, especially in short-yardage situations. And if they’re able to limit the explosiveness from Pollard — he’s tied for the fourth-most 20-yard runs throughout the league with five — that will take the Cowboys out of their comfort zone by putting more pressure on Prescott to contend with Minnesota’s vaunted pass rush.

Even though Las Vegas doesn’t particularly care for Minnesota’s chances of getting their eighth consecutive win, Skoldiers should be encouraged about the Vikings’ ability to potentially shut down Dallas’ prized running game at home this week. And if they do so, Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter should continue to wreak havoc on Prescott and the Cowboys’ aerial attack when presented with obvious passing situations.

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Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

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