One key to winning games in the NFL is to understand how to set up and exploit mismatches. These can be formation advantages, personnel packages or straight player-vs-player matchups that create an advantage for your team to exploit.
Today we look at Sunday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets using the Pro Football Focus.com (PFF) player grades to identify mismatches on both teams. Obviously, we don't have grades for this year yet, so we'll do the season opener using the grades from last year. Time permitting, and once newer grades are available, we'll try to have a key matchup post like this one up prior to most if not all games. So consider this a dry run.
Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson vs. Cowboys ROLB
Ferguson is easily one of the best left tackles in the game today. With +17.4 he graded out as the fifth best left tackle in the league last year. The two-time Pro Bowler has been atop the PFF rankings in each of the last three years, and last year allowed only two sacks over the entire season. But even Ferguson will have his hands full with DeMarcus Ware (+41.8), who came in as the third best outside linebacker in the league last year.
Watch for Rob Ryan to try to line Ware up over the right tackle a little more often than usual to exploit the Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter (-13.4 on the season).
Cowboys TEvs. Jets ILB duo
The Cowboys receivers versus the Jets corners has been covered extensively, so we'll look at another potential difference maker for the Cowboys in Jason Witten.
PFF ranked Jason Witten as the number one tight end in the league (+25.8), ahead of the ' (+17.2) and - wait for it - (+13.1). Witten will likely go up against the Jets inside linebacker duo of Bart Scott (+29.9), the third ranked ILB in the league, and David Harris (+7.3), who is ranked 25th in the league. Both of them, but Scott in particular, are formidable against the run, yet neither is that much of a threat against the pass.
Scott has a +1.2 grade against the pass, Harris has a -1.6. For your reference, the Cowboys' Bradie James (+2.2) and Keith Brooking (+1.8) both graded out better against the pass. If Garrett can create opportunities for Witten against the Jets linebackers, the Cowboys passing game could get on a roll.
Felix Jones vs. the Jets run-stuffers
We already saw the run-stuffing prowess of the Jets ILBs. But it doesn't stop there. DE Mike DeVito was the second best run-stuffing 3-4 DE in the league last year (+17.0) and NT Sione Pouha ranked fourth best among all defensive tackles against the run (+19.0). Rookie Muhammad Wilkerson was a a popular option during the draft for many Cowboys fans, and he should fit in well along the jets D-line. The Jets look set to make it very tough for the Cowboys to gain yards on the ground.
The Jets defensive gameplan is as simple as it is effective: stop the run (The Jets allowed a league low one 100-yard rusher last year, Chicago's Matt Forte) and make offenses throw against their corners or safeties. Once offenses start doing that, the game is usually over quickly. For the Cowboys to succeed, they need to establish at least the threat of the run, as that will open up the passing game. The Cowboys offensive line will play a big part in this, but it's impossible to use any type of grades from last year for this line, so we're left with Felix.
Felix Jones graded out as the 14th best back in the league last year (+7.8), despite playing a relatively low number of carries. But the graders liked Jones less for his rushing and more for his receiving ability.
With Jones and Witten seeing likely to see a lot of action, nobody will be surprised to see a lot of short passes from the Cowboys on Sunday, least of all Rex Ryan.
"It’s no great surprise we’re expecting more screens when you have three new starters on the offensive line," Ryan said. "Shorter passing game, and all that. I don’t mind saying what we expect. I think it’s pretty obvious."
The Jets know what's coming. The Cowboys know what's coming. The team that executes better will win the game.