EAGAN — Welcome to mid-November football.
As the Minnesota Vikings head to Dallas to face the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, dings and cuts that are piling up, which may push some players into different roles as Mike Zimmer’s team fights to remain in the driver’s seat for a playoff position. On the other side, the Cowboys are dealing with the very same issue and the very same pressure.
For the second straight practice, receiver Adam Thielen sat out, giving him very little chance to play following a re-aggravation of a hamstring injury on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. He initially injured the hamstring on a diving touchdown catch against Detroit and missed the Vikings’ win over Washington. Thielen got the green light to play against the Chiefs but lasted only a few plays before sitting out the rest of the game.
With the bye week coming up following next week’s contest with Denver, it might be wise for the Vikings to let Thielen fully heal for the stretch run. But that puts them in a tough position against a defense eighth in the NFL in quarterback rating against.
It’s possible Josh Doctson could return and Bisi Johnson has 16 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns but neither offers the threat across from Stefon Diggs that Thielen does.
The Pro Bowl receiver isn’t the only one who is a question mark for Sunday night’s game. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph did not practice with a knee injury on Thursday. If he can’t play, that would push Shamar Stephen into the nose tackle role and Jaleel Johnson and possibly Ifeadi Odenigbo to three-technique. Joseph gives the Vikings the best shot at stopping Ezekiel Elliott, who averages 92 yards per game out of Dallas’s backfield this year.
While head coach Mike Zimmer said he thinks Trae Waynes will play, he missed practice with the designation of “ankle/not injury related,” putting his status in question. Backup corner Mike Hughes has been solid when called upon this year but he’s also on the injury report, limited with a knee injury. The door could be open to seeing Holton Hill for the first time this year.
On Dallas’s side, they have been getting healthier but star receiver Amari Cooper sat out to have an MRI on his injured knee. Since arriving in Dallas, Cooper has been a game changer. This year he has 42 receptions at 16.7 yards per catch.
Behind Cooper is Randall Cobb, who has only played 40 of his 344 snaps as an outside receiver. He has 25 receptions in seven games.
“He’s done a lot, he’s playing slot receiver for them some, they move him out to the Z at certain times,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “He’s doing a lot of different things for them. Like you said, we know him just from playing against him for so many years in the division, so it’ll be a good contest with him, a good matchup. We just got to make sure we know where he’s located within the scheme of things that they’re trying to do.”
The pressure will mainly rest on former Colorado State receiver Michael Gallup. He’s become another big-play threat for the Cowboys, gaining 15.7 yards per reception but the second-year receiver also has seven drops, per Pro Football Focus.
Dallas has a number of question marks on their side. Both starting tackles La’el Collins and Tyron Smith were limited in practice on Thursday.
“You take those two tackles out of there, that makes a big difference, and I think that’s with anybody throughout the course of any time you’re missing starters, especially the caliber of tackles that you’re talking about,” Edwards said. “You’re going to see a difference in what they’re asked to do.”
Young star linebacker Leighton Vander Esch missed last week’s game and was also limited in practice.
“I just know 55 (Vander Esch) is a really good football player,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “He’s so active. He’s so long. He always finds his way around the ball, long limbs. He fits this scheme really well, and just a high energy player. Really that’s all their linebackers. You talk about all those guys going from sideline to sideline, it’s impressive.”
Official designations for both teams will be announced on Friday.
Mike Hughes punt returning
The Vikings briefly re-signed Marcus Sherels earlier this year but released him after they felt Mike Hughes gave them a better option. He’s returned seven punts for 38 yards and fumbled once (and recovered it himself).
“You have to remember he didn’t do it in the preseason,” special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said. “Figure the games he’s been doing it, he needs those games underneath his belt just to get warmed up to it. I think he is starting to get there. There are still a lot of positive things he can do but I think the more opportunities he gets, the more comfortable he feels getting that ball downhill.”
The last time these two teams matched up was in 2016 when Zimmer missed the game due to emergency eye surgery. George Edwards called the defense, which held Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to just 139 yards passing. He said there are plenty of similarities on the roster.
“You look at them offensively, consistently personnel-wise, they’re pretty much the same,” Edwards said. “Across the board, offensive line is playing tremendous right now, as good as anybody in the run and in pass protection. The running back, you can see that he’s grown and he’s been very consistent over the last couple of years. The quarterback, really impressed with Dak (Prescott) and how he’s throwing the ball outside, and his consistency throwing the ball. That’ll be a big test for us, and like I said, they’ve changed coaching staffs around on the offense, but very similar concepts to what they’re doing offensively.”
The Vikings lost that Thursday Night matchup 17-15. They failed on a 2-point conversion at the end of the game.
Witten still truckin’
If Cooper can’t play, Dallas could look more to its veteran tight end Jason Witten. The Vikings have been excellent this year against opposing tight ends but the long-time Cowboy, who came back from one year of retirement, has 34 catches for 321 yards this season.
“He came back in, got right back into his role,” Edwards said. “You look at him right now, I think he’s the second-leading receiver on their football team, so they’re getting him the ball, especially in the different situations.”
Sendejo’s potential role
Andrew Sendejo did not practice on Thursday, making it unclear whether he will play on Sunday against Dallas. It’s unclear if he will have any role on the defense or be purely a special teamer with Anthony Harris presently owning the starting role.
“We think a lot of Sendejo, always have,” Edwards said. “He’s a smart, tough, physical football player. I think he brings a lot to us as a team, so we’ll just have to see how he does, catching him back up. He’s been away all season, so we’ll see where he’s at mentally and what we can do package-wise as far as looking at him as we progress through the course of the week.”
Maalouf talked about the potential of Sendejo adding to special teams.
“We have to see where he’s at with everything,” he said. “I’ve only heard great things about him from him being here in the past. We are excited to have him. I think he will contribute positively in some way at some point.”