Vikings vs. Cowboys: Dez Bryant ready to get back in good graces

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Dez Bryant played well against the Lions last week, but was scrutinized after the loss for failing to live up to his own expectations. He has a chance to get back in everybody's good graces against a beleaguered Vikings secondary Sunday.

Dez Bryant has had a rougher week than he should have. The Dallas Cowboys receiver turned in a respectable performance against the Detroit Lions, catching three passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns, but was upstaged spectacularly by Calvin Johnson, who turned in one of the all-time great performances by an NFL wide receiver with 329 yards receiving and a touchdown on 14 receptions.

The fact that Bryant wasn't on Johnson's plane of existence wouldn't have drawn much scrutiny if Bryant hadn't put himself on Johnson's level prior to the game, saying "I believe I can do whatever he can do," then falling well short of doing so. Eventually the Cowboys lost on a last-minute touchdown drive and Bryant was spotted yelling at teammates on the sideline. Media didn't wait to find out that Bryant was actually shouting encouragement before painting him as a diva. As a result, Bryant could probably use a pick-me-up this weekend.

Enter the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota is 1-6 this season coming off a disheartening loss to the Green Bay Packers. The quarterback situation is puddle of yeesh featuring Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman, and what was supposed to be a stout front-seven heading into the season has failed to live up to that billing. Most importantly, at least in Bryant's case, the Vikings' pass defense is one of the league's worst.

The Vikings have given up 16 passing touchdowns this season, more than any team except for the Buffalo Bills. They haven't made up for their end zone woes with interceptions, either. The Vikings' seven interceptions on the season put them squarely in the middle of the NFL pack. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged a 97.7 rating against Minnesota, which ranks 27th out of 32 teams.

That's good news for Bryant, who has been one among the league's best at finding the end zone. Bryant has eight touchdown receptions this season, more than any player not named Wes Welker. Six of those touchdowns have come from inside the red zone, which has helped make Dallas the third-best offense in the NFL at scoring red zone touchdowns -- the Cowboys score at least six points on 69 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. The Vikings defense, meanwhile, ranks 19th in the red zone, giving up a touchdown 58 percent of the time opponents get inside the 20.

The Cowboys will be the fourth top-10 passing offense the Vikings have faced this season in terms of passer rating. The other three -- the Lions, Panthers and Packers -- all managed to have great days through the air when they faced Minnesota. Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers completed a combined 74 percent of their passes at 9.02 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and one interception. In the process, the Vikings allowed individual players to have big games. Jordy Nelson had seven catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns, Brandon LaFell had four receptions for 107 yards and one touchdown, and Reggie Bush had four receptions for 101 yards and one touchdown.

The performance against the Lions was notable because the Vikings were able to hold a healthy Calvin Johnson to just four receptions for 37 yards, which is no small feat even if it meant other players getting open. Perhaps it's no surprise that the outing was one of the last times Minnesota's defensive backfield was relatively healthy. Safety Jamarca Sanford and cornerbacks Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson have all spent extensive time on the injury report. Second-year safety Harrison Smith was having an impressive season before being placed on injured reserve (though designated for return) due to turf toe.

Cook and Sanford have yet to practice this week due to hip and groin injuries, respectively, once again leaving the Vikings shorthanded. The Vikings do have some potential talent in the wings, namely rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but nothing proven. Until the Vikings shut down a passing attack of merit, quarterbacks like Tony Romo will be licking their chops heading into matchups like Sunday's.

And Bryant, too. Dealing with the scrutiny of being an elite-caliber player is exceedingly difficult, no doubt. The pressure will be off to some extent against a team that is a gradually accepting its role as a punching bag, at least for this season (three straight losses by double digits). With no G.O.A.T. candidate on the other sideline, maybe we'll be able to appreciate Bryant for what he is: A truly spectacular pass catcher even if he isn't THE best at the moment.

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