EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Take a look at Minnesota's offensive stat sheet sometime. You'll notice Sidney Rice led the team in receptions. But slot man Percy Harvin was the Vikings' top target on third down and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe was their leading scorer.
More than anything else, quarterback Brett Favre's first season in Minnesota has been characterized by an egalitarian approach that spread the ball more evenly than all but one team in NFL history. It has generated and elevated six legitimate targets, a number that represents the Vikings' biggest advantage in Sunday's divisional playoff game against Dallas.
To this point, pregame discussion has centered on the Cowboys' pass rush: Will DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer overwhelm the Vikings' offensive line? Favre himself acknowledged that dynamic this week, noting: “We have to block [them] to have success.”
But there is a reason the Cowboys' pass rush is so critical; when given time this season, Favre has used his array of weapons to pick apart defenses. The Vikings are one of two teams in league history to boast six players with at least 40 receptions, the product of several factors that will place dramatic urgency on the Cowboys' ability to rush the passer.
“My favorite receiver is the one who is open,” Favre has said many times this season. He has thrown most often to Rice, who caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards. But he hit Harvin on more third-down throws (40) than any other target, while Shiancoe caught all 11 of his team-leading touchdowns in the red zone.
From what I can tell, this dynamic has evolved from three factors: Favre's 19-year knowledge of NFL passing trees, predominantly single coverage from defenses, and continuing (if unfounded) fear of the Vikings' running game.
Let's start from the top. Favre entered the NFL in 1991 and has played in a version of the Vikings' offense for 17 seasons. Terminology has changed and some adjustments have occurred, but as coach Brad Childress said: “He knows his way around this system and knows where the backside No. 4 [receiver] is.”
Childress continued: “That is a huge thing, to be able to progress. It sounds easy, but young quarterbacks typically get stuck on the No. 1 and No. 2 [receiver]. They can't come back to the backside No. 4. As I always say, [Favre] knows where all the bones are buried.”
Examples have punctuated the Vikings' season. Rice was Favre's fourth read on a 58-yard reception Oct. 18 against Baltimore, one that set up Ryan Longwell's game-winning field goal. A number of Shiancoe's touchdowns have come only after Favre checked Rice's status. A combined 86 receptions between tailbacks Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson -- for an average of 9.5 yards per catch -- point to multiple reads as well.
“The key for any offense is being able to utilize all of those means or a mixture,” Favre said. “To equally … mix it up to guys is very difficult to do within the framework of a game. It's not so much about keeping people happy as it is about winning. I think we have proven we can do that.”
But as we have discussed recently, defenses have rarely adjusted to compensate for what Childress termed “equal-opportunity throwing.” With a few exceptions, Rice and Harvin faced mostly single attention in man coverage. Shiancoe has been allowed to roam the seams in zone calls.
You can measure true respect from defenses by noting where their “extra man” is allocated. For the most part, Vikings opponents routinely devoted an eighth player to the line of scrimmage to help defend Peterson. There are many versions of the so-called “eight-in-the-box” approach, but Peterson recently said the Vikings saw one of them on 98 percent of their plays this season.
By rule, that approach makes it impossible to adequately account for more than three legitimate threats in the passing game.
“We really didn't see [opponents] legislate against a particular receiver,” Childress said. “I think the thing that was constant was that they were going to always come in and play to defeat the run, but you didn't see a lot of matching Sidney Rice running around, or Bernard Berrian running around. … You saw the same things: The run principles to take away the run.”
The exceptions have been notable. According to Favre, both Arizona (Dec. 6) and Carolina (Dec. 20) dropped their extra man into coverage because their base defensive lines were stopping the run and getting more than adequate pass rush.
In those games, Peterson combined for 56 yards on 25 carries. As a result, Favre said, the Cardinals were able to roll a second man in coverage toward Rice on some occasions and Harvin on others, especially on third down.
“It was a hard adjustment for us to make,” said Favre, who was sacked seven times and threw three interceptions in those games.
Which brings us, in my mind, to the crux of Sunday's matchup. If the Cowboys can get pressure with their aggressive front line, they'll have enough bodies to cover the Vikings' targets. If they can't get pressure, however, Favre has routinely demonstrated the capacity to find the open receiver.
“[Arizona and Carolina] didn't have to pressure from the secondary or the 'backers or anything,” Favre said. “They could play whatever coverage in the back end and just rush three or four, and there's not a lot of windows to throw in. That, more than anything, is what the Cowboys thrive on.”