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Playoff Preview: Dallas Cowboys Vs. Detroit Lions

What to expect out of Dallas's offense and defense in their wild-card game against Detroit.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas's game against Detroit is probably the most anticipated matchup of wild-card weekend. There are a ton of stories going on; Suh's non-suspension, the war of words between Barry Church and Golden Tate, the playoff misfortunes of both these teams. Some media outlets even have time to mention what's happening on the field; so we've heard quite a bit about "strength on strength" how Dallas's running game will match up against Detroit's run defense.

The truth is, there's a lot more going on in this game than off-field drama and easy analysis. Let's take a look at what to expect during Sunday's game.

When Dallas Has the Ball

Run out of Passing Formation: I was being a little snarky earlier in dismissing the run game. In fact the run game is vitally important; everything Dallas wants to do offensively is based off establishing the run. So how can they do that against the best run defense in the league?

To answer that let's look at the two games that Detroit allowed more than 100 yards on the ground; an early season game against the Jets and the Week 17 showdown against Green Bay. One thing that both of those games had in common was the formations used by the Jets and the Packers. Both teams played predominately out of shotgun. Not just in passing situations; they both stayed in shotgun for the entire game. Check this out:

Jets:  Total Running Plays - 27. Runs out of Shotgun - 20. Percentage of Runs in Shotgun - 74%

Packers:  Total Running Plays - 38. Runs out of Shotgun - 35. Percentage of Runs in Shotgun - 92%

I don't think Dallas will radically alter its gameplan to incorporate the shotgun formation more than it has been using it. But they don't have to. I think that the Jets and Green Bay had success running because by staying in shotgun they forced the Lions to respect the pass and not sell out to stop the run. Dallas can do something similar by utilizing the 3WR formation.

Role Players Step Up: According to Football Outsiders, Detroit went from having the #1 passing game in the league the first nine weeks of the season to having the #23 passing defense in weeks 10-17. This decline came primarily on passes to #1 WR's and running backs.

What does this tell us? First, that Dez is going to get his this game. But it also tells us that the Lions struggle in an area that Dallas does well in; passing to the running back. We know that DeMarco Murray is one of the best pass catching backs in the league, but I have a feeling that this is a game where Lance Dunbar finally breaks out. Detroit's defense is incredibly aggressive. I think we will see those Lance Dunbar packages we heard about all off-season and Dallas tries to isolate Dunbar one on one with a linebacker, as well as run some kind of counter or misdirection play to break Dunbar lose.

Another player I expect to have a huge game is Cole Beasley. In week 17 the Lions had no answer for Randle Cobb in the slot. And it wasn't deep passes that Cobb killed Detroit with. It was quick slants and short option routes. Do you know who else is a killer on the quick slant and short option route out of the slot?

Where to Run: Dallas is at its best running right up the middle. Unfortunately that's also where Detroit's run defense is stoutest according to FO. And as Travis Frederick said in an interview this week, it's really hard to double the Lion's DT's because that leaves a linebacker open to make a play. I also don't think that we're going to see a lot of pulling guards; the Lion's defensive line is too quick and the DT's have the ability to "follow the guard" unblocked into the backfield.

One thing that Dallas does love to do in the running game that I think will be very effective against Detroit is the stretch play. Dallas loves to get the defensive line moving East/West and create cutback lanes for Murray and co. Because Detroit is so aggressive, this play has the ability to leave big holes for Murray to run through. I also think this is a play that they will use with Dunbar to try and get him a crease and a big play.

When Detroit Has the Ball:

Play Vanilla: I know it's not what a lot of fans want to hear, but Dallas needs to come into this game with a pretty vanilla gameplan on defense. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be aggressive; but it does mean no crazy stunts or all out blitzes.

There are a few reasons for this. First off, Detroit's offense isn't that good, and they haven't shown the ability to hit a higher gear. One of the neater statistics that FO tracks is variance. To put it simply, does a team run from hot to cold, or does it stay pretty steady? Detroit has one of the lowest variances in the league. And that's well and good in the regular season, but not so much when you're the underdog in the playoffs. Our defense matches up pretty well with Detroit's statistically, there is no reason to distort it and give them the opportunity for easy plays.

Perhaps more importantly is that Matt Stafford is bad under pressure, but pretty good when blitzed. According to Pro Football Focus, Mathew Stafford has attempted 664 drop backs this season. On those dropbacks he has been blitzed 164 times and has earned a score of 3.1 (usual caveats on PFF scoring apply). However, on those 500 plays when he was not blitzed, he has a PFF score of -8.0, a swing of 15.1 points. Say what you will about PFF scoring, but that is too big a swing for just noise or bias.

So what's going on? The answer is two-fold. On one hand, Stafford has one of the quickest releases in the game, meaning when he's blitzed he has the ability to quickly hit his hot receiver. Couple that with one of the best pass-catching backs in football in Reggie Bush and a pair of good wide receivers, and you have a good blitz-beating team.

On the flip side, if you can pressure Stafford with four defenders and play coverage behind, well, he's horrible. Go back and watch week 17 against Green Bay; at just the slightest bit of pressure Stafford falls apart. His footwork gets sloppy, he throws off his back foot, and he tends to drift backwards instead of stepping up in the pocket.

No Cover 2: One of the big questions of the year is; what happened to that high-powered Detroit offense? A big part of the decline is the absolute absence of a sideline passing game. For whatever reason Detroit has been horrible throwing the ball outside the numbers.

Lions Passing

As you can see from the chart above, Detroit is at its worst throwing the deep outside routes, and only slightly better throwing the mid-outside routes. Where Detroit succeeds is throwing to the middle of the field. Now what are the strengths and weaknesses of the Cover 2? It protects the deep outside, but is exploitable in the middle of the field. Dallas needs to stay away from that coverage.

That being said, this is another example of strength on strength. Detroit is best throwing in the middle of the field. According to Football Outsiders Dallas was the best team in the league protecting the middle of the field; #1 in defendng the deep middle, and #2 defending the short middle.

Defend the Flats: Something I noticed when watching film on Matt Stafford; he's a rhythm quarterback. When he's in rhythm he is one of the best in the league, when he's out of rhythm he looks lost.

One thing that Stafford loves to do when he starts getting out of sync is go to his running backs. He'll start looking for short easy throws in the flats forcing the defense to start creeping up and linebackers to spread wide which opens up the middle of the field. I imagine we're going to be playing a lot of Cover-3, with two corners and a safety deep, meaning it will be imperative that Bruce Carter or Kyle Wilber watch for backs leaking out of the backfield.

I know everyone is focused on the running game, but I think this game is going to come down to which team can move the ball through the air. I think most of the matchups are pretty favorable towards Dallas. We'll have trouble containing Megatron, but unless he goes absolutely berserk (not impossible but certainly not a given), I don't think Detroit has the horses to keep up with the Cowboys.

There you go BtB, those are my keys to the game. What do you think the Cowboys should do on offense and defense to win this game? Post your thoughts and comments below!

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