Spagnola: Perfect Time For A Defensive Treat

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FRISCO, Texas – Dallas might be known as Big D.

This Sunday night in Minneapolis, Minn., the Cowboys defense better be known as Bigger D.

Yep, putting the Cowboys defense on notice coming off the bye and facing the very best offensive team, led by the best quarterback, this defense has faced since taking on the Los Angeles Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert in Game 2 of this so far encouraging season.

If you remember, basically put the Cowboys offense on notice in the past game, wondering how the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 1 scoring offense would measure up against the Patriots defense coached by defensive mastermind Bill Belichick. Said this was the biggest test of this Cowboys offense's legitimacy.

Well, the Cowboys needed extra time, but the offense passed with flying colors, putting up 567 total yards and 35 points, propelling the 5-1 NFC East leaders to that 35-29 victory over the Patriots.

Well, defense, your turn. Head to the front of the class. Sharpen your No. 2s. Big test time, and your ability to also pass with flying colors likely will determine if the Cowboys can win their sixth consecutive game and of course move to 6-1 for the first time since the 2016 rookie seasons of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

Hey, the Vikings might be just 3-3, but they lost those three games by a total of 11 points – three points in overtime, one and seven. They own the NFL's No. 5-ranked offense, and they will bring their sixth-ranked passing offense up against the NFL's 28th-ranked pass defense in the 7:20 p.m. start at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Minnesota offensive talent is rather frightful for this Halloween night encounter, and we can start right off with quarterback Kirk Cousins completing 69.5 percent of his passes, throwing 13 touchdown passes and intercepted only twice, constructing a 105.4 QB rating. Let us not forget he led the Vikings to 430 yards of total offense in last year's encounter, a 31-28 come-from-behind Cowboys victory, that yardage fueled by his 305 yards passing, resulting in three touchdown throws.

The Vikings are no slouches at the receiver position, what with Justin Jefferson and veteran Adam Thielen. Jefferson leads the team with 41 catches and averages 13.2 yards a catch. Thielen already has five touchdown receptions. And K.J. Osborne isn't bad as the third receiver.

As Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy says, "I think the whole perimeter group is going to be a big challenge for us."

Do the Cowboys worry more about Jefferson or Thielen?

"It's like pick your poison," says cornerback Trevon Diggs, trying to extend his streak to seven consecutive games with an interception.

And the Cowboys should know all they need to know about the Vikings' "perimeter" since last year Thielen drilled them with eight catches for 122 yards and Jefferson made the most of three catches for 86 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown reception.

And speaking of picking your poison, better not go to sleep on the Vikings' running game. Dalvin Cook appears healthier, having gone for 140 yards last game against Carolina. Oh, and for a reminder, last year he gashed the Cowboys for 115 rushing, and two years ago in a 28-24 Vikings win, Cook caught seven passes for 86 yards.

"It's going to be a good challenge to face those guys," slot corner Jourdan Lewis predicts.

Plus, just can't get this out of my mind, how the Cowboys defense has been highly susceptible to those chunk plays, 27 times hit for passing plays of at least 20 yards in six games, totaling 859 of their opponents' 1,867 yards passing. That's 31.8 yards a catch on big passing plays.

Just from an organic standpoint, save the abnormal number of takeaways – 14, 11 of those interceptions – this defense must improve.

But especially in this game for two gigantic reasons, both surrounding the uncertainty going into Saturday's final practice of the week on the availability of the quarterback Prescott.

Will he play, and if he does, will the right calf muscle strain he's been nursing since throwing the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat the Patriots, limit his effectiveness, lessening the possibility of this team continuing to average 34.2 points a game?

Let's remember this offense has scored at least 35 points in each of the past four games and only once has been held to less than 29 points. That softens the effect of the Cowboys being nailed for at least 28 points in three of their six games, opponents averaging now 24.5 a game.

So, what if playing in one of those Noise Domes and facing a Mike Zimmer-coached defense causes the Cowboys' sky-rocketing offense to come back down to earth?

Better have a Big D performance.

But then there is this:

What if Dak doesn't play?

That means Cooper Rush, officially in his fourth NFL season but having appeared in just six games and thrown only three passes as a pro. He would be making his first NFL start and his first start of any kind since the 2016 season at Central Michigan, playing on Dec. 19 in the Miami Beach Bowl.

And while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones speaks highly of Rush, saying Friday on 105.3 The Fan, "He's just outstanding at executing our offense. … Gives us the pure ability to maximize our supporting cast around him," would it be logical to expect a quarterback with no NFL starting experience to continue putting up 30 points.

Remember, only once in six games this year have the Cowboys scored fewer than 29 points, that being a 20-17 win over the Chargers on Greg Zuerlein's walk-off 56-yard field goal. And even the 29 scored in the opener wasn't enough to beat Tampa Bay, the Cowboys losing, 31-29 on the Buccaneers' walk-off field goal.

The Cowboys will not likely make that definitive decision on Dak's availability until after Saturday's late morning practice, and really won't say unless they change Friday's official injury designation from questionable – which is reasonable going forward, not wanting to give the Vikings any sort of scouting report – to either doubtful or out.

And as of late Friday afternoon, here is all sides of that triangular decision. Dak already has said if it's up to him, he's playing. Jones said, "I'd like to think Dak can go, and will think that. Things are looking good now about Dak, I'd say." And then there is head coach Mike McCarthy, cautiously pointing out, "It's more than just this game. We're obviously in our seventh game, so there is a ton of football left to play, so that's definitely part of the decision."

To me, however this turns out, Dak playing or not, just going to be imperative that this defense plays its best game of the season Sunday night. Just needs to limit the Vikings, having scored at least 30 points against Arizona, Detroit and Carolina, to a reasonable amount. Like around 20 or so. And going back to last year, the Cowboys have only managed to achieve that, giving up no more than 20 points, four times over the past 21 games.

"We've all got to play 100 percent every snap and try to slow them down out there," rookie Micah Parsons says.

Yep, be a heck of a treat if the Cowboys defense can pull off that trick.

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