EAGAN, Minn. -- After getting edged by a team with a top-five offense in scoring, passing yards and total yards in Kansas City, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves preparing for the same situation this week.
Sunday night’s opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, ranked No. 1 in yards per game, fifth in scoring, and boast a top-four pass and rush offense. No one has been surprised by the NFC East leaders’ running back, Ezekiel Elliott, but Dak Prescott continues to rise above expectations.
The quarterback is completing a career-high 69.7 percent of his passes and on pace to set career highs in attempts, passing yards and touchdowns. One of the keys to his success has been his willingness to be aggressive throwing the ball.
“There’s no question he has a comfort level giving those guys the football vertically down the field, and it’s made a big difference for our team,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said Thursday, Nov. 7. “He’s been able to make more and more plays down the field with his arm, from the pocket.
“He (also) gets out of the pocket and makes plays for us with his feet and with his arm. He’s just a heck of a football player.”
Prescott ranks third in the NFL in average completed air yards according to NFL Next Gen Stats, with 7.6 yards per completion.
Of the quarterbacks ranked above Prescott, Matthew Stafford is the only one the Vikings have faced — a 42-30 victory at Detroit in Week 7 that showed the first signs of pass defense issues the Vikings are struggling with.
Stafford completed 30 of 45 passes for 364 yards, including five passes completed for more than 20 yards. Stafford passed for four touchdowns, all to wide receiver Marvin Jones.
The struggles continued in Kansas City, where Tyreek Hill caught passes totaling 140 yards and a touchdown. With the Cowboys next in line, eyes turn to star receiver Amari Cooper, held out of practice on Thursday with a knee injury. His status remains uncertain.
The Vikings’ coverage plans won’t change in either case, cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He’s a great receiver, big part of their offense, but we still got to go out and play,” he said.
If Cooper is unable to go, the Cowboys will rely more heavily on Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Blake Jarwin, tight end Jason Witten and, of course, Elliott.
Elliott’s presence adds a dimension to the offense that neither the Chiefs nor Lions had in their arsenal, which will make it harder for the Vikings to key in on either the run or the pass.
“They’re running the ball well, so complementary to that is play-action, taking shots and (Prescott) is doing a good job trying to drive the ball downfield to his guys and trying to make big plays for them,” safety Anthony Harris said.
Prescott has thrown eight touchdowns passes of 20 yards or more this season while limiting the negative plays. He has been sacked only 10 times after getting downed 56 times last season, and has been sacked on only 3.5 percent of his dropbacks.
Prescott also has run for three touchdowns, a fact not lost on Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.
“He wants to throw the football but he will move out of pocket. He will scramble some. He’s been throwing the ball really well, accurately. He’s getting the ball out,” Zimmer said.
To win, the Vikings will have to force Prescott to stay in the pocket, which could open up opportunities for big plays from a defense that sacked Chiefs quarterback five times in last Sunday’s 26-loss.
“We will have to get pressure on him to try to allow him to make quick decisions and hopefully we can force him into some bad decisions,” Mike Hughes said.