The Cowboys and Vikings are two teams going in totally different directions.
In Dallas, excitement could not be higher as the Cowboys come into Thursdays Night's pivotal match up on a 10 game winning streak. In Minnesota, however, the opposite is true.
After a 5-0 start made the Vikings look like the top team in the NFC, their offense has sputtered, injuries have piled up, and they have fallen to just 6-5. Two of those five losses have come at the hands of the current leaders of the NFC North, the Detroit Lions, all but closing Minnesota's division title hopes.
They are still fighting, however, and have to be looking at this Cowboys defense as a chance to get back on track. Earlier this week rookie receiver Laquon Treadwell said that the Vikings will look to open up their passing game more on Thursday, and have been working on their downfield attack.
Watch out Dallas! Laquon Treadwell says "We're going to have a chance to make plays down the field. We've been testing the waters this week
Treadwell hasn't seen much action this year, and hasn't been impressive when he has had chances. But the Vikings do still possess two dangerous vertical threats in wide-out Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Even with all-world running back Adrian Peterson still watching from the sidelines, fill-in backs Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon are still legit players which can make the Minnesota offense dangerous.
Still, their offense has been less-than-average, in large part due to a banged-up offensive line and, well, Sam Bradford. Bradford is 23rd in the league in Yards Per Attempt at just 6.43, while being sacked the 7th most times at 26. For comparison, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (a rookie!) is 3rd in YPA at 8.34 and 28th in sacks with only 15.
Regardless of these poor passing game numbers, the Vikings are still looking at the Cowboys defense as their chance to turn things around.
While the defense has been better than expected, the winning streak has certainly masked some serious issues.
Not the least of which is the weak, and I mean weak, pass rush. The Cowboys pass rush is so nonexistent that they don't have a single player in the top 60 of the NFL in sacks. So even though the Vikings offensive line is bad, they have to feel like they can finally give Bradford significant time to throw this week.
Of course, on the Dallas side of things, they have to be hoping this is the week that guys like DeMarcus Lawrence finally hit their stride, and feast on weaker competition. But if it didn't happen against the Eagles' Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and it didn't happen against Washington's backup tackle Ty Nsekhe, then I am not confident it will finally happen this week.
One of the main reasons the Cowboys defense has been able to overcome their lack of a pass rush, besides the offense's efficiency, is their prolific secondary. Morris Claiborne had emerged as the team's best corner, Brandon Carr has played his best football since joining the Cowboys, Byron Jones and Barry Church have been solid safeties, and Anthony Brown has impressed at every turn.
But then, injuries happened. And while JJ Wilcox has been better than expected, he has no been nowhere near the level of a Barry Church. And while Orlando Scandrick is improving week by week, he hasn't been as good as Morris Claiborne. Luckily, the Cowboys expect to get Church back for Thursday, but how good can we expect him to be in his first game back from injury?
Getting Church back will help, but this is still a defense which has given up passing yard totals of 449 and 408 in two of their last three games. What Dallas does have in their favor, however, is that Bradford is not as good a player as Ben Roethlisberger and Kirk Cousins are, and outside of Stefon Diggs, the Vikings don't possess the weapons which the Steelers and Redskins do.
All in all, I expect the Cowboys to win this game. They are the better team, despite any of the deficiencies discussed in this piece. That doesn't mean they won't have their hands full, however, even though the Vikings appear to be sliding down the NFC standings.
WR Randall Cobb Named Cowboys “Surprise Standout” for Offseason
NFL teams have wrapped up their offseason activities with the close of OTAs, especially where the players are concerned, and await the start of training camps next month. In reviewing the last few months, ESPN had their local reporters each pick a surprise standout from their team's practices. Todd Archer, who covers the Dallas Cowboys full time, selected veteran receiver Randall Cobb.
Cobb is in his first season with Dallas after signing as a free agent last March. He's spent the last eight years with the Green Bay Packers and was a Pro Bowler in 2014, but has struggled with injuries the last few seasons.
Here were Archer's observations on how Randall is doing so far with the Cowboys:
Normally a player with Cobb's résumé -- 470 catches for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns during his career -- would not be considered for a category like this. But injuries limited him to only nine games and 38 catches for Green Bay in 2018, and it was hard to know what the Cowboys were getting in the veteran receiver.
If the offseason work is any indication, they have found a replacement for Cole Beasley. Cobb's versatility can expand the offense for others, such as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb looked quick in and out of his breaks and fast enough to make plays down the field. Will he put up the 1,287 yards he had in 2014? No, but he gives Dak Prescott a security blanket in the slot who can turn a small gain into a big one.
The notion of Cobb replacing Beasley is a big one. While we'd like to think that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup will provide plenty of firepower for the Cowboys offense, Dak Prescott has enjoyed a reliable threat from the slot position since he arrived.
Randall Cobb, when healthy, can do more than just make clutch catches. He has good run-after-catch skills and perhaps bring more big play potential than Beasley did.
If Cooper and Gallup do emerge as a dangerous starting duo on the outside, Cobb should have even more opportunities to punish defenses than Beasley did.
If nothing else, it's very encouraging to hear that one of the Cowboys' few 2019 free agent moves is already reaping benefits. Cobb still needs to bring it over a full season to really justify the move, but these early reports are cause for excitement.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
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