Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the Dallas Cowboys offense, they now have to go against the best defense in the NFL. The Jacksonville Jaguars are laced with great defensive players. Everywhere you look, they have playmakers. Six of their eleven starters made the Pro Bowl last season - Jalen Ramsey (CB), A.J. Bouye (CB), Calais Campbell (DE), Malik Jackson (DT), Yannick Ngakoue (DE), and Telvin Smith (LB). The Cowboys offense has a huge challenge this week.
Fortunately for Dallas, the Jaguars offense isn’t very good and the way the Cowboys are playing defense means they have a shot. It’s going to come down to which defense lets up first, and that could be all it takes to come away with a win. The Cowboys will have to scratch and claw if they want to beat the cats and get back to .500 for the year. Here are five things to watch on Sunday.
1. Who wins on early downs?
Both the Cowboys and Jaguars will try to keep their quarterback in manageable third-down situations. This means the running game will be an essential part of the offense. Both teams are solid against the run. The absence of Sean Lee does not appear to be hindering the Cowboys run defense as they are ranked fifth in the league, giving up 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. Both Jaylon Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch have looked sharp going sideline to sideline chasing down ball carriers.
The Jaguars are ranked 13th, allowing 4.0 yards per attempt. They have a couple strong linebackers themselves in Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.
The team that more effectively stops the run is going to have an edge in this one. Here is how each defense has looked against the opposing team’s top running back in each game so far:
There is one running back that has played against both teams and that is New York Giants Saquon Barkley. While Dallas did a better job shutting him down as a rusher, Barkley still was quite effective as a receiver. The Jaguars are without their star running back Leonard Fournette as he’s been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury all season. Instead, the Jags will throw out T.J. Yeldon. He’s been giving them roughly 50 yards a game this year, but he’s also toppled over 45 yards receiving in each of the last three games. The Cowboys should be able to stop Yeldon when he’s rushing, but they’ll also need to keep him contained as a receiving back as well so they can get off the field.
For Jacksonville, they will be tasked with stopping the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott. With the Cowboys offense not exhibiting any threat of a passing attack, Elliott will be facing loaded boxes all game. The Houston Texans went all-in in stopping Zeke on Sunday night and it worked as he only mustered 54 yards on 20 carries. It was the second-lowest yards per attempt average of his career, with last year’s Denver debacle holding down the worst spot.
The Jaguars have the no. 1 passing defense in the league, but their run defense isn’t as dominant. Even though the Jags will be ready for it, the Cowboys must find a way to get the ground game going.
2. Which QB can take care of the ball the best?
Both teams are going to try to keep things simple for their quarterback. A good running game will certainly help, but look for both teams to attack with some quick, short passes. It’s not what we want to see, but this is how these teams operate.
Dak Prescott just isn’t throwing the ball down the field. He’s more comfortable with short to intermediate passes where he can get the ball out before any sign of pressure shows up. Prescott’s had four picks on the year, but all of them have come off of deflections. That’s not to say he doesn’t make errant throws at times. He does. But he’s just not that reckless.
Blake Bortles, on the other hand, can be absolutely dreadful at times. He has thrown seven picks on the year, including four last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Blake Bortles' game against the Chiefs was basically a blooper reel. pic.twitter.com/gbSz9edD8o— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) October 8, 2018
Bortles had five turnovers total and the Jags were routed by KC. The good news for him is that he’s doesn’t need to throw the ball 61 times like he did last week. There isn’t going to be a shootout in Texas. A clean, well-managed passing attack should be enough to get it done this week.
The Cowboys defense got their first interception of the year last week against the Texans. There could be a duck floating around here and there if Bortles is off his game. If that happens, the defense must make sure they come away with the football.
3. Watch out for a fake punt
In a game where points could be scarce, don’t be surprised if someone tries to steal a possession by means of a fake punt. The Cowboys have pulled this off in each of the last two seasons as punter Chris Jones has scampered off for big games against the Philadelphia Eagles (2016) and Oakland Raiders (2017). It was a risky move considering both times they were deep in their own territory. The offense had been struggling and the Cowboys saw an opportunity so they pounced.
While the Cowboys are good with their fakes, the Jaguars take it to a whole new level. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis has a hat full of tricks and isn’t afraid to use them. Whether they run it, pass it, or even work in a jet sweep, the Jaguars will find creative ways to run a fake.
Brad Nortman to James O’Shaughnessy for a 29-yard pass on the fake punt! Jaguars with a first down in the red zone! pic.twitter.com/1XfVPq9bWx— Big Cat Country (@BigCatCountry) December 3, 2017
And stealing a possession is not the only way their aggressive nature can help them in a game. Just the threat of a fake can make a big difference. After the Jags successfully executed a fake against the Colts last year, they also benefited by flipping the field later in the game as it set up the Jaguars ability to pin them deep.
The Cowboys have benefited from this as well as Chris Jones threw a pass to Brice Butler in the game against the Atlanta Falcons last year. While Butler got called for offensive pass interference and the play was negated, Jones was able to pin the Falcons back at the two-yard line on the very next play.
Whether it’s pinning a team inside the 10-yard line or something big like a fake that leads to points, this type of play could be the difference maker.
4. Kickers duel
With both teams struggling on offense and playing well on defense, this game has all the making of a low-scoring affair. It could turn into a chess match where field position looms large in determining the winner. Usually, when the Cowboys field goal unit trots on the field, it’s a sign of defeat as another drive stalls out. Nobody likes seeing that happen. But for this game, field goals might be a reason to celebrate as every point counts.
The Jaguars boast one of the best red zone defenses in the league, only giving up a touchdown 33% of the time (ranked second). At the same time, their offense is one of the worst in converting as they are only successful 38% of the time (ranked 30th).
The Cowboys are in a similar boat. The defense is strong in the red zone, only giving up touchdowns 41% of the time (ranked seventh), whereas their offense is terrible, only finding the end zone on 41% of the time (ranked 29th).
Both teams also have great kickers. The Cowboys new 29-year-old rookie kicker is 11 for 12 so far this season. The Jags kicker is a perfect 8 for 8 on the year. Both kickers have knocked down their lone attempt from 50+ yards.
Last week was a field goal fest as seven of the nine scores of the game were field goals. With the Jaguars having a better defense and worse offense than the Texans, this one could end up very similar.
5. Reuniting with an old friend
Everyone knows that Barry Church is now a member of this elite Jacksonville defense. He’ll be ready to make plays against his former team. While Church get his licks in, the Cowboys will need to exploit another former teammate - Jaguars right tackle Jeremy Parnell.
Parnell spent his first four seasons in Dallas after going undrafted in 2011. He only started two games over his first three seasons in the league. Injuries to the Cowboys offensive line allowed Parnell to make five starts during his final season with the team. It was good enough to land a five-year, $32 deal with the Jaguars.
Bortles was sacked five times last week as Dee Ford (who now leads the league in pressures) had his way with Parnell. Watch him go around Parnell (78) like he wasn’t even there.
Dee Ford leads all NFL edge rushers with 29 pressures and is the sixth highest rated pass rusher at his position, according to @PFF. Here's a mashup of a man in a contract year against the Jaguars. pic.twitter.com/flabpKpl0D— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) October 11, 2018
Parnell will now draw his former teammate, DeMarcus Lawrence, who is having a good year. The Cowboys defensive end is tied for fourth with pressures and can make a run for the top spot if he can dominate Parnell like Ford did.
What will you be watching for on Sunday?