Final Thoughts: Church's Return, Tyron Smith's Health, Special Teams; More

FRISCO, Texas – The timing has shifted a bit, since the Cowboys are once again playing on a weeknight, but I still managed to put together my "end of week" notebook for this highly-anticipated matchup with the Vikings.

From injury updates to noteworthy trends for this game, here's a few final notes on what I'll be watching for when this game kicks off from U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday night.

  • Look for Barry Church to be back in the starting lineup against Minnesota. He was able to practice all week without any limitations. Church will be wearing a custom graphite shell on his arm to protect it from injury. Associate Athletic Trainer Britt Brown was able to take a cast mold of Church's arm and send it away so the graphite shell could be developed. Church has missed the previous four games, and I don't believe we will have to wait long in the game to see him test it out.
  • Dallas is tied for the league lead with 51 rushing plays of 10 or more yards. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota is tied for 17th, allowing 30 rushing plays of 10 or more yards. On 42 percent of their snaps, they've allowed opponents to rush the ball for four or more yards a carry.
  • I've heard that it was a very good week health-wise for Tyron Smith in regard to taking practice snaps. In previous weeks, Smith has taken practices off in order to help him recover from the game. Smith didn't need the day off, and that's a great sign because they are going to need him against the talented defensive end Everson Griffen.
  • Offensively, the Vikings do not have a scoring drive of four or less plays for the season. Opponents have forced them to drive the ball for points and that has been a struggle for their offense. Dallas is currently tied for fifth in the league defending opponents when it comes to drives of more than five minutes. For the season they have only allowed opponents 11 drives where they had the ball for that length of time. Just for reference, the league average is 14 drives. I like the Cowboys' odds of forcing the Vikings to work for their points.
  • Dallas has done a nice job of getting off to a good start in games with first drive points. I think it's especially important to score early -- not only to put pressure on Sam Bradford and this Vikings offense, but to quiet this U.S. Bank Stadium crowd that ranks right up there with Seattle and Kansas City for home field advantages. Dallas has scored 41 first drive points, which puts them tied for third in the league. Defensively for the Vikings, they've allowed 23 first drive points, which ranks 18th.
  • If I am offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, my plan would be to stay away from Xavier Rhodes when throwing the ball. Look for Linehan to once again move Dez Bryant around in order to keep him away from Rhodes. Trae Waynes is talented, but he tends to allow more passes to be completed on him. He has been sharing time with Terence Newman, who has been banged up injury-wise. Newman has the ability to stay with Bryant, but I question whether he can physically take him on with his lack of strength. Where both teams are very good is when it comes to playing on third downs -- especially in that 4-to-6 yard range. The Vikings are only allowing opponents to convert 32 percent of the time, while the Cowboys hit those conversions at 51 percent. Something will have to give here with all those matchups.   
  • Keep an eye on Lucky Whitehead and this Cowboys kickoff return team. The Vikings are outstanding in their own return game, but on the other side they tend to struggle covering kicks. About 70 percent of their opponents' returns have been brought back 20 or more yards this season. The Vikings have yet to lose a game when they have a non-offensive touchdown, so maybe Whitehead can give them a taste of their own medicine.    
  • My guess at the weekly Cowboys inactives: QB Mark Sanchez, CB Morris Claiborne, S J.J. Wilcox, RB Darius Jackson, LB Justin Durant, OT Chaz Green, DE Benson Mayowa.    

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