Thursday Night Football Preview: Can Anyone Stop the Cowboys?
The feast of strong Thursday games continues with another healthy helping of Thursday Night Football. According to numberFire's Power Rankings, our top-ranked team will be facing off against our seventh, as the Dallas Cowboys take on the Minnesota Vikings.
The Cowboys, who are in the midst of enjoying a 10-game winning streak, have looked like an unstoppable force. Can they keep it up?
One could make the argument that rookie Dak Prescott is the best quarterback in the league. Among the 35 quarterbacks with at least 150 drop backs, Prescott checks in second in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back.
In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP gain -- nobody has been better, as he comes in at a league-best 56.6%. Factor in Prescott's eighth-best Rushing Success Rate, and he's been highly efficient at the position so far in 2016.
In his own right, Sam Bradford has also been a pretty good quarterback. He's 15th in terms of Passing NEP per drop back and the exact same in terms of Passing Success Rate (47.9%). Bradford's life and job becomes a lot easier if one of his top targets, Stefon Diggs, is able to suit up, but he missed last week's game and is questionable to return this week.
Among the 34 wide receivers with 75 targets or more, Diggs is 16th in Reception NEP per target.
Running Back Play
As we highlighted last week, Ezekiel Elliott leads a rushing attack that has been fantastic in 2016. The rookie runner leads the league with 242 rushing attempts while racking up the third-best Rushing NEP per play (0.10).
His ability doesn't stop at being a great runner, either -- Elliott ranks as the second-best pass-catcher amongst the same group with regard to Reception NEP per target (0.75).
The pass game is very important for the Vikings, as the rushing attack has struggled due in large part to a struggling offensive line. Among running backs with 100 rushes or more, Jerick McKinnon (-0.19) ranks dead last out of 29 rushers in Rushing NEP per play. That's not good. With only 90 rushes, Matt Asiata barely misses the list, but at -0.11, is not much better.
This is a very poor rushing offense that needs to lean on the pass to be effective.
This is a tale of two very different defensive units and will go a long way in deciding Thursday's contest.
Per our schedule-adjusted per play rankings, the Vikings' defense ranks second, and they're great at defending both the pass (second) and the run game (fifth).
The Cowboys' defense, however, ranks a paltry 23rd. They rank 24th against the pass, but are far better against the run (4th). Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the Vikings sport a poor rushing offense and could lean heavily on the pass.
In terms of Adjusted Sack Rate from Pro Football Outsiders, Minnesota has been fantastic in pressuring the quarterback on their way to an an adjusted rate of 7.4%, good for fourth-best. The Cowboys, meanwhile, haven't been good at getting to the quarterback, logging a paltry 20 sacks on their way to an adjusted rate of only 5.9% (18th).
To slow down this fantastic offense, they'll need to get to the quarterback.
But it was two Michael Pittman touchdowns -- a 78-yarder and a late 3-yarder -- in the second half that ultimately led to a Buccaneers 34-31 win.
In this matchup, the home Vikings correlate to the Buccaneers and would lead to a cover for the home team.
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