Saturday, January 16, 2010

2010 NFL Divisional Playoff Preview, Part 3: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Favorite: Vikings (53.0%)

Indeed, like the Ravens-Colts game, this is a much closer contest than the records indicate. The Vikings feasted on the easiest schedule in the NFL, but still had the looks of a legitimately good NFL team. Only thing is, the Cowboys are also legitimately good, going 6-2 against the NFL's top half and battling a somewhat tougher NFC East schedule en route to an 11-5 season and a surprisingly easy wildcard win over Philly.

The Cowboys have momentum but, unlike the Arizona Cardinals, they've got the weapons and performance to back it up. The Vikes struggled a bit in December: They need to make sure it's all put back together by Sunday, and even then the Cowboys have a good chance at the upset.

Team Efficiency (Using Football Outsiders' Weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)):

Cowboys: 31.2% (3rd)... Offense DVOA: 24.2% (3rd)... Defense: -0.7% (10th)... Special: 1.0% (14th)
Vikings: 17.7% (7th)... Offense DVOA: 15.2% (9th)... Defense: 1.7% (15th)... Special: 4.2% (3rd)

Both teams lean on productive and well rounded offenses to overcome average defenses. However, the Vikes have an added bonus with one of the NFL's best special teams units.

Cowboys Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.05 (B)
Drive Success Rate: .716 (B)
Turnovers per: .052 (A-)

Offense Line Run Blocking: A-
Left End: A-
LT: B+
Interior: C
Right End: B
Pass Protection: C

The Vikings' strong pass rush and their ability to get to the scrambling Tony Romo is key to their chances. The Cowboys do their most rushing damage with sweeps around the edges, but fortunately the Cowboys still dabble too much in running up the gut, with which they've only had average success. The Vikings need to contain the edges at all times, run or pass, to contain the Cowboys.

Cowboys Backfield:

QB: Tony Romo: A (Rushing: A+)
RB: Marion Barber III: B- (Receiving: D+)
RB: Felix Jones: B (Receiving: D)
RB: Tashard Choice: A (Receiving: A)

Tony Romo better have his running shoes on, because the Vikings' defensive line are 4th overall in adjusted sacks. Whether its the Williams brothers or Jared Allen breaking the line, Romo is going to get pressured from the pocket a bunch, and he's definitely going to need to run for cover. Can he hit his receivers on the run, or can he run off a few scrambles without getting killed?

The Cowboys can ease a lot of this concern by getting the run going, but that's easier said than done vs the #1 run defense by DVOA in the NFL. But then again, the Cowboys did pile up 198 yards against the 12th best run defense in the league, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could run the ball on the Vikings.

Cowboys Receivers:

WR: Miles Austin: A
WR: Patrick Crayton: B
WR: Roy Williams: D+
WR: Sam Hurd: B-
TE: Jason Witten: A-
TE: Martellus Bennett: F

Good news for Romomania: Minnesota's greatest weakness is containing receivers, ranking in the NFL's bottom half against #1 wideouts, secondary wideouts, tight ends and backfield receivers, only showing decent cover ability vs the #2 wideout. Sucks for one of Roy Williams or Patrick Crayton, maybe. Miles Austin, Roy and Crayton are all capable of big games, especially Austin: He caught 7 balls vs a tough set of Eagles corners, and the Vikings are virtual practice squadders in comparison. 100+ receiving yards should be within easy reach, especially in the climate controlled Metrodome with Romo likely having to throw 35-40 passes.

Cowboys defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: B-)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B-
vs left end sweeps: B+
Right DE: C+
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: C-
vs right end sweeps: C-

The Vikings do what the Cowboys ought to, running a quarter of their rushing plays outside the tackles with their great tailbacks. Sweeps to the Cowboys' right should be containable, but the Vikes get a lot of yards off left tackle, and outside of the right edge the Cowboys are average and very beatable. Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor have had a tough season but they could break out against this unit.

Pass Defense: C-
Defensive line vs rush: C
Pass rush: B
vs #1 WR: B
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: D-
vs RB: D

The Cowboys can lock up your starting wideouts, as Philadelphia (which leans on their star wideouts heavily to move the ball) found out the hard way last week. Beyond that, they can be exploited. Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice may not be likely to post big games, but watch out for Percy Harvin (and why is he part-timing off the bench while the more pedestrian Berrian is starting? As if we need more proof that Brad Childress is a bullet in the Vikings' foot).

Also, infrequently referenced weapons like TEs Visanthe Shiancoe and Jimmy Kleinsasser could make 5-7 catches and get big yards on a weak-ish middle pass defense. Adrian Peterson is not known for his receiving but this Sunday would be a good time to get more familiar with that aspect of his game.

Cowboys Special Teams:

Kicker: D- (Kickoffs: A-)
Kick returns: D+
Punting: C
Punt returns: A-

Watch out for Patrick Crayton. Also, watch out for Shaun Suisham if the game's on the line. Pray it doesn't get that far, Wade Phillips.

Image c/o "My Fantasyland"

Vikings Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.44 (A-)
Drive Success Rate: .724 (B)
Turnovers per: .092 (A)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C
Left End: C-
Interior: C
Right End: C-
Pass Protection: C

Adrian Peterson's had better seasons (18 regular season TDs aside) but he's not getting a ton of help from his line. Brett Favre's also working behind average pass protection: Good thing he scrambles well and can get rid of the ball quickly. Also, good thing the Cowboys' front seven is average at best vs the run and fairly beatable by secondary receivers.

Also, one thing not to expect from either offense is turnovers. Both teams are in the top 3 in the NFL of fewest turnovers per drive. The oft-cited turnover problems on each team, Dallas' Tony Romo and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, have cut down on their turnovers this season.

Vikings backfield:

QB: Brett Favre: A+
QB: Tavaris Jackson: A
RB: Adrian Peterson: C (Receiving: B)
RB: Chester Taylor: F (Receiving: B)

As much as he is loathed and/or revered, Brett Favre is still to this day one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.

1300+ yards and 18 TDs by Peterson are enough to make you question FO's DVOA rating system for tailbacks, but by their numbers the Vikings' backs have not been as marginally productive as other backs. That said, the backs are good receivers, which plays right into the Cowboys' weaknesses on defense. Even if the Cowboys can contain the run (not an assured outcome), the backs could net big gains as valve targets if Favre is pressured, or even on set short-range plays as primary receivers.

Vikings receivers:

WR: Sidney Rice: A+ (Rushing: A)
WR: Percy Harvin: B
WR: Bernard Berrian: C
WR: Greg Lewis: C+
TE: Visanthe Shaincoe: A
TE: Jimmy Kleinsasser: I thought you did this for a living

The numbers tell us the Cowboys can only cover two of these guys. They'll definitely lock on Rice. Do they lock on nominal #2 Bernard Berrian, or do they buy the hype and put a body on Harvin, even if he's run out of the slot? They'd be smart to do the latter and force Favre to beat them with Berrian, overtargeting Shiancoe and trying to find the tailbacks in space again and again.

Vikings defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: A
vs left end sweeps: D+
Right DE: B-
Interior run defense: B
Left DE: B-
vs right end sweeps: A

How does a team get an A on overall run defense while their front line averages about a B? Well, because the linebacking and secondary is also part of the run defense, and they do a fine job of closing in and helping contain opposing rushers, especially to the strong side. The line's consistentcy with interior runs also helps, of course. The Cowboys' ability to run is going to come down to the one thing the running game does well: Sweeping to the outside and finding open space at the line of scrimmage. Lead blocks aren't going to help much against this quick front seven.

Pass Defense: D
Defensive line vs rush: B
Pass rush: B+
vs #1 WR: D
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: D
vs RB: C-

Though the Vikings have an excellent run defense and pass rush, they are exploitable in the secondary, and if Tony Romo doesn't get crushed by that front four or suffer a relapse of the turnover bug, he's going to throw for 300+ yards and this could be, like the Packers-Cards game, a shootout that comes down to who scores last.

Vikings Special Teams:

Kicking: B (Kickoffs: D)
Kick returns: A+
Punting: C
Punt returns: C+

Aiding that likelihood is Percy Harvin's danger as a kick returner. Even if Romomania leads a scoring drive, Harvin could take the opening kickoff deep downfield, at worst shortening the distance Favre and Co need to travel to respond with a score, but also possible that he breaks a run for a touchdown.

Punter Chris Kluwe does not provide bang for his league leading $5 million annual contract, as his punting has actually been around league average. Whoops! Meanwhile, Ryan Longwell has missed only two field goals all year, one from 30-39 and one from 40-49, while nailing two 50+ yarders. He's not the liability the Cowboys have at kicker.


So who has the edge?

I have a friend who put money on the Minnesota Vikings to get to the Super Bowl. I'd like to put his mind at ease by saying the Vikes are likely to win, but I'd be lying: Be very afraid, not because the Vikes are underdogs, because after all is said and done they are still favorites, but only slight favorites. The Vikes have enough weaknesses that play into the Cowboys strengths to make this a nailbiter. Thankfully, the Cowboys also have weaknesses that the Vikings can exploit as well.

If someone put a gun to my head and told me to pick a winner, I'd pick the Vikings, then spend the game writing my last will and testament just in case.

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