In the first three games of the young 2011 season, the Cowboys coaching staff likely had to rub their eyes and wonder whether they were looking at the previous week's tape. All three contests came against teams with very similar profiles: offenses that want to run the ball to set up the pass, talented but inconsistent quarterbacks, gritty 3-4 defenses that stop the run with physical, punishing front sevens. These teams work the clock, limiting possessions, keep the game close, and try to wear down opponents in the second half.
This week, however, they will face a team, Detroit, that diverts fairly radically from this pattern: the Lions are a pass-first bunch with a budding star at signal caller; their 4-3 defense generates impressive pass rush heat but has been vulnerable to the run. How will the Cowboys match up against a differently-styled opponent? Because we haven't yet seen the 'Boys line up against this sort of foe in 2011, that remains an open question. For that and other reasons, I think this is by far the most interesting--and potentially nerve-wracking game of the young season.
Because the season is so young, the information we have collected on teams remains a small sample size. Detroit is 3-0 on the season, and Troy Aikman recently declared that they reminded him of the 90s Cowboys teams the year or two before they blew up and captured Lombardis. But the Lions spotless record features victories over two winless squads; are the Lions that good or have they padded their record against bad teams?
Make the jump...
Thus far, the Lions have been potent on offense, averaging 400 yards and 33 points a game. At the same time, almost half of those points came against a Chiefs team that turned the ball over six times. And Detroit has increasingly become one-dimensional on offense: while their rushing totals have decreased from 126 to 89 to 20 yards, their passing totals have steadily risen (305, 322, 338). Is this a trend? If so, will Matthew Stafford and Co. become easier to defend?
Questions abound for the Cowboys as well, starting with the multiple injuries the Cowboys have suffered at receiver. Against Washington, Jason Garrett was able to scheme his way to 250 passing yards, about half of it to backs and tight ends. With both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant unlikely to play this Sunday, can Garrett he find a way to generate a similar, baseline amount of passing yardage--enough to keep the game close?
On the other side of the ball, will the fact that Dallas has both its starting corners healthy and back in the fold help to limit the damage Detroit (specifically their all-world receiver, Calvin Johnson) can do in the passing game? Will they be able to curtail the Lions formidable tight end duo of Brandon Pettegrew and Tony Scheffler, both of whom possess the speed to do damage up the seams?
These and so many other questions will be on the field Sunday; to keep my head from exploding at all the uncertainties, I thought it prudent to sit down and write out what I can reasonably expect from this game, as a way to parse the final outcome with some degree of certainty. So, here's a list of things we can hang our (Cowboy) hats on this Sunday:
Detroit won't run the ball well: I noted above that the Lions have increasingly become a passing team this season. After churning out 126 yards on the ground in game one, the Lions have struggled to hit the century mark since. This isn't for lack of trying; they ran the ball 30 times against KC (netting 89 yards) and only 19 (for 20 yards!) against the Vikings, largely because they were playing from behind. Meanwhile, Dallas has been superb against the run, holding opponents to 3.0 yards a clip, and surrendering no runs of longer than 9 yards (a 12-yard Alex Smith run came on a 3rd and long scramble). I'd expect the Cowboys strong number against the run to continue this Sunday.
Dallas OLBs will exploit Detroit OTs: The Lions have a pair of first-rounders at offensive tackle: RT Gosder Cherilus (whose name befits an evil ambassador from Star Ward Episode III) was the 17th player selected in 2008; LT Jeff Backus was the 18th overall pick in 2001. Despite their draft pedigree, both are limited athletically: Backus, never what scouts would call a "foot athlete," is now long in the tooth; the ponderous Cherilus has trouble with speed rushers. Thus far, Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has moved DeMarcus Ware around the formation to develop and exploit mismatches. I'd expect that trend to continue and for both Ware and Spencer to make Matthew Stafford's life more difficult.
Also: Jay Ratliff gave Lions OC Dominick Raiola a lot of trouble in last year's matchup between these two teams, so Dallas should be able to get some interior pressure to match that they generate outside.
Dallas will struggle to pass deep: with Miles Austin out and and Bryant hobbled (regardless of whether or not the remaining receivers on the roster know their assignments), nobody the Cowboys could put out on the wing posed a deep threat against Washington. Jesse Holley and Dwayne Harris certainly don't have deep speed (perhaps its the braids?), and Laurent Robinson probably doesn't, so the onus falls on Kevin Ogletree (who has legit 4.3 wheels) to threaten the Detroit safeties. Given his confusion last week, and the fact that, despite those wheels, he doesn't have a history of running deep patterns (as opposed to Austin's apprenticeship, in which he ran a lot of deep routes), its hard to imagine who on the present roster will offer any kind of consistent vertical threat.
Detroit will try to take away #82: Given the above, the lone receiving threat Dallas can march out there on Sunday is Jason Witten. Detroit's seasoned defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, will have a little something prepared for the Senator, likely bracketing him with various combinations. He'll have to: look at the candidates for single coverage: linebackers DeAndre Levy and Bobby Carpenter (starting SLB Justin Durant is out after suffering a concussion late in last week's game), strong safety Amari Spievey or nickel corner Aaron Berry. It will be up to Jason Garrett and Dallas' offensive players to do something--like complete a deep ball--to force the Lions into a different strategy, so that Witten can exploit what are sure to be huge mismatches in single coverage.
What does all of this mean? Detroit's offense will have to rely on the pass to be successful, and it will be up to Ryan to limit the horizontal game (RB Jahvid Best and their two tight ends are all excellent receivers--I almost titles one of my key points "don't let their tight ends make hay") and get to Matthew Stafford before routes open up in the vertical game. I read a Lions fan's claim that Dallas put more pressure on their quarterback than any other squad did last season; we have to hope for a repeat performance. That will force the Detroit offense to operate much like Dallas' will have to function: mix runs with short passes, avoid obvious passing situations, etc.
For the Cowboys, explosive plays are going to be verrrrry hard to come by on Sunday. The Cowboys are going to have to be patient and work the ball down the field, much like they did against Washington. Given Detroit's defensive line personnel, look for a lot of short patterns and three-step drops. Of course, what this will do is to invite the Lions to compress the field, bringing guys closer to the line of scrimmage. If they can hit a couple of mid-to long range passes (or almost hit on them with a receiver who is open), it will make a world of difference.
I think Dallas will run the ball more effectively than Detroit, which will give them the advantage should both teams have to play the dink-and-dunk game. But, I have to ask: which team is more likely to open up the passing game, or open up a lead and thus make the running game less significant? Which team is more likely to succeed consistently in obvious passing situations? With Austin out, the answer to both of those questions is Detroit. I see two possible outcomes: a comfortable Lions win or the Cowboys winning another squeaker. If the latter is to occur, the Cowboys, as they did in 2010, are going to need an unexpected game-changer, a "Bryan McCann," if you will. For some reason that defies logic, I think they will.
Cowboys 19, Lions 17