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Rams @ Cowboys: Things to watch - will Ezekiel Elliott breakout? DeMarcus Lawrence keep his streak alive?

Here are some things to keep an eye on when the Cowboys play the Rams.

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Cowboys will host the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday in what is expected to be a scrappy matchup. First-year coach, Sean McVay, has Rams’ fans excited as he’s interjected some offense into his squad and has his team leading the NFC West. Cowboys fans should remember McVay as the guy calling the shots on offense for the Washington Redskins over the last few years. Each season with the Redskins, the offense steadily improved as McVay turned them from one of the bottom offensive teams into one of the better units in the league. Last year, Washington had the third best pass offense.

So, if people are wondering how the Rams are currently the top scoring team in the NFL, keep that in mind.

Speaking of offense, the Cowboys have unloaded the points on the Rams the last three times these teams have faced each other, scoring at least 31 points in each affair. The Cowboys have won all three of those games, but this is a new Rams’ team. After years of struggling, they have stockpiled some great draft resources and are now starting to put it all together.

It should be a good game with a lot of things to keep an eye on. Here is what I will be watching on Sunday:

Will Zeke finally have a breakout game?

Recently, when these teams battled, DeMarco Murray ran wild. In three games, he rushed for 528 yards, averaging over seven yards per carry. This included his franchise-record game when he ran for 253 yards in 2011. But that’s Murray and that’s against a different squad, so things are different, right?

Well, not really. The Rams have struggled against the run so far this season. They are giving up 139 yards per game on the ground, including a dismal display against the Washington Redskins where they allowed 229 yards. There will be space to run, but can the Cowboys running game capitalize?

It’s been a tussle for Ezekiel Elliott thus far. This season, Zeke has rushed the ball 55 times for a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. Defenses have clogged holes and swarmed the ball to where it’s been difficult for Dallas to get the ground attack going. If Elliott can find some room and build up a head of steam, he could pick up right where DeMarco left off and run amok.

Can the defense stop Gurley?

Zeke won’t be the only running back on the field that will be a cause for concern for the defense. The Rams have a pretty good one of their own.

While Cowboys fans are well aware of what DeMarcus Lawrence is doing on defense, Todd Gurley is also off to a hot start this season. Both Gurley and Lawrence were named NFC’s Player of the Month for the offense and defense respectively.

The Rams are going to pound the ball to Gurley. He had 28 carries last week and was very productive. He had 113 yards on the ground and another 36 yards receiving and found the end zone three times. Gurley has the speed to get outside and the power to bust through arm tackles. If the Cowboys don’t do a good job containing him, the Rams offense will continue to put points on the scoreboard.

Clear Eye View leading the crew

If Sean Lee is unable to go, that puts the Cowboys linebacker group in dire straights. Lee is the field general for the defense. And with Anthony Hitchens still out of the mix, the onus falls on Jaylon Smith to step up and be the go-to linebacker. The good news is that Smith is handling the workload fine and showing no ill effects from his knee injury.

Damien Wilson will also take on a larger role and they’ll dust the cobwebs off Justin Durant and give him more than just a few snaps. And if they get real desperate, fullback Keith Smith can always iron man it and play both sides. He is a converted FB from linebacker anyways so it wouldn’t be that absurd.

Whatever players are available, they better be ready to take on a heavy dose of the run. If the Rams control the line of scrimmage, it could end up being a long day for the Cowboys defense.

The Rams have improved dramatically on third down this season.

But if the Cowboys can put them in third and long situations (seven or more yards to go), the Rams struggle. They’ve only converted 3 of 19 from third and long.

Can Tank make it four in a row?

What a great start to the season DeMarcus Lawrence is having. You’d think he was in a contract year or something. Actually, the reality of it is he’s as healthy as he’s ever been and looks reinvigorated. He’s been wreaking havoc over the first three weeks of the season and has recorded more than one sack in each game so far.

His right tackle competition hasn’t been very good up to this point, but things will change this week as he will go up against Rob Havenstein, who has been solid this season. I had a chance to ask Sean Wilkinson (@Papa_Lurch on twitter) from Turf Show Times about the Rams RT and this is what he had to say :

After being displaced by Greg Robinson and Jamon Brown for the majority of the offseason and training camp, The 6'8", 330 behemoth settled back into his familiar RT spot. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams OL ranks 5th in pass blocking efficiency. That is a dramatic turnaround from last season and Havenstein's success is reflected in that ranking.

If Lawrence continues his rampage this week, then we have to give strong consideration that he could be the real deal.

Battle of the All Pro’s

The 2014 NFL Draft had some really good players in the first round. Khalil Mack, Odell Beckham Jr., and Mike Evans are just a few of them. Fortunately, the Cowboys were able to draft the last first-round gem with the 16th overall pick when they selected Zack Martin.

While Martin has been outstanding, many fans were holding our breath that Aaron Donald would slide to the Cowboys. The Rams picked Donald three picks before the Cowboys were up and he has had a remarkable start to his career as well. The Cowboys interior offensive line will have their hands full with Donald and Michael Brockers providing some good push in the middle. Will Martin and company be up to the task?

Keep the Rams defense guessing

One of my favorite moments from the Monday night game was right after the Cardinals had kicked a field goal to make the score 21-17 with about six minutes left in the game. At this point, it was time to start chewing some clock so that Arizona wouldn’t get another shot with the ball. All things pointed to a heavy dose of Zeke.

So what does Cowboys offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan draw up? A bootleg pass where Dak Prescott rolls out and launches a 50-yard completion to Brice Butler. With one swift toss, the tone of the game changed and Cowboys fans would be able to breath a little easier.

The Cowboys were committed to the running game after the Denver debacle so it wasn’t surprising that they ran the ball on 17 of their 23 first-down plays. But when the Cowboys chose to pass, they made the defense pay. On the six passing plays on first down, the offense averaged 17.6 yards per play. The Cowboys coaching staff has been criticized for passing in run situations, but becoming less predictable is a better way to go. The Cowboys have the tools to beat you in the air and on the ground and should mix it up to keep the Rams defense guessing.

If you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned

The Rams have good defensive players that will constantly attack. They are an aggressive unit, which can be good, but sometimes they lack discipline and that can get them in trouble. The Rams have fallen victim to giving up big plays when they over pursue and allow the runner to get past them.

The Cowboys need to take advantage of this. Whether it’s misdirection plays or bootlegs, if they get the Rams going the wrong way, it could open the door for a big play. The Rams defense will gamble so make them pay the price for their risky endeavors.

Contain Cooper Kupp on third down

The Rams rookie receiver, Cooper Kupp, got off to a good start in the Week 1 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts. He had four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. He’s cooled off since, but continues to be a target for Jared Goff.

With the big, physical receiver, Sammy Watkins, on one side and the speedster, Tavon Austin, moving around a lot, Kupp is a player that could give the defense fits.

Throw up the X for the home crowd

Rams sixth-year veteran, Trumaine Johnson is a good cornerback. He had seven picks a couple years ago and played good enough to allow Janoris Jenkins to walk. Since that time, Johnson has been hit with the franchise tag for the last two seasons and brings in a nice annual salary of $16.7 million for the 2017 season.

That’s a lot of coinage and although he is paid like an elite corner, he’s going to be a step down from the caliber of talent that Dez Bryant has recently faced. After going against Jenkins, Aqib Talib, and then Patrick Peterson last week - Johnson should allow Bryant to win more battles than he has been.

Last week, Johnson struggled at times.

Pierre Garcon had 142 yards last week. If Garcon can have that much success, then shouldn’t Bryant be able to come down with some big plays as well? Wee wee, monsieur.


What will you be watching for on Sunday?