3TFO: Vikings @ Cowboys, Week 9
This NFC showdown finds the 1-6 Minnesota Vikings traveling to Dallas to take on the 4-4 Cowboys. Despite sitting at .500 and suffering yet another heart-breaking loss last week to the Detroit Lions, the Cowboys are still leading the lackluster NFC East.
The Vikings have no such hope of winning their division. They were, however, more competitive in the 31-44 loss to the Green Bay Packers last week than in the previous, horrific-to-watch 7-23 loss the to the Giants. It seems that Josh Freeman will be the signal-caller — Minnesota (and anyone watching) has to hope Freeman will perform better than he did in the Meadowlands. Here are three key matchups to watch in this contest.
Adrian Peterson vs. Sean Lee
Sean Lee currently owns the third-best Run Stop % among inside linebackers (30 stops, four missed tackles), while Adrian Peterson has the best Elusive Rating among running backs (30 forced missed tackles on the ground with another five after catching the ball).
The fast and violent Lee is one of the most enjoyable linebackers to watch in the NFL. Both those aspects of his game can be encapsulated perfectly in the Week 2 Chiefs game at 11:07 in the first quarter where he shoots underneath would-be blocker Branden Albert to knock Jamaal Charles backward for no gain. Like anyone, he’s not perfect (5:41 in Q3 of the Chargers game, and a few plays where he over-pursued last week are examples), but he wins far more battles than he loses.
Lee will likely encounter Peterson several times in this game. Peterson has dealt with a hamstring injury and some poor blocking from his offensive line and FB Jerome Felton (who was awesome last season), but he is still a very dangerous runner. He can still break defender’s ankles with a cut en route to the house (the 78-yard score on his first carry of the year) or drag LBs (his short score last week against the Packers). He also leads his peers in yards after contact. This will be a fun matchup to watch.
Dez and Terrance vs. Vikings Secondary
Despite the controversy that occasionally surrounds him, Dez Bryant is one of the best wide receivers in the league. Meanwhile, rookie third-rounder Terrance Williams has become a reliable second-option and deep threat with a TD in the past four contests — he also has only one drop on the year. These two especially helped out their QB last week, with their combined 126 yards-after-catch making up over 50% of Tony Romo’s passing yardage.
Both of them have to be licking their chops at the Vikings’ secondary, especially with Harrison Smith’s absence. Sophomore CB Josh Robinson has been mercilessly picked on this year, giving up 50 catches, which is by far the worst in the league (the second-most conceded catches is 35). Starters Chris Cook (CB) and Jamarca Sanford (S) are banged up and may not play, but they have a combined coverage grade of -4.2 anyway. Rookie first-rounder Xavier Rhodes has also struggled. Backup safety Mistral Raymond handled himself well when put into the lineup last week, but it’s worth noting he earned a -2.6 coverage grade on just 36 snaps against the Steelers. Marcus Sherels has the highest coverage grade of this group, but only played 35 total snaps in the last three games. Can someone on this unit step up?
The Lions didn’t sack Romo last week, but still pressured him often — this no doubt helped his below-average performance. The biggest culprit was LG Ronald Leary, who has also been the weakest link in this department all year. That could change though with veteran RG Brian Waters lost for the year, leaving Mackenzy Bernadeau to try and pick up the slack. In his only full game this season (Week 1), Bernadeau got beat for a sack, two hits, and two hurries. Rookie Center Travis Frederick has improved significantly after a rough first two games though, while tackles Tyron Smith and a resurgent Doug Free have been solid this year.
The Vikings’ pass rush, while leaving a lot to be desired, is the best aspect of this unit so far. Left defensive end Brian Robison has provided the bulk of that pressure (37 total on the year), but only four of those pressures have led to him putting a QB on the ground. It could be a tough day for Robison though, as he’ll be primarily up against Free, who currently owns the highest pass blocking grade among right tackles. Jared Allen, despite five sacks and eight QB knockdowns, has been nearly blanked in three contests this year (two hurries in one, with a single hurry in the other two), and Dallas LT Smith is no slouch. DTs Fred Evans and Sharrif Floyd are the next best pass rushing linemen, and should have better opportunities to bother Romo. The defensive line must win some of these individual matchups to have a chance of winning this game.
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