The Dallas Cowboys return back home to host the Detroit Lions this week. Both teams sit at 1-2 and desperately need a win to stay in playoff contention. It’s early, but teams that lose three of their first four games usually don’t make the postseason. Make no mistake about it, it’s a big game.
All eyes will be on the Cowboys offense as they look to correct their struggles that have seen them produce very little in terms of points. Do they have it in them to get the job done? Here are five things I will be keeping an eye on when the Cowboys square off against the Lions.
Start fast, stay fast
It’s no secret that the Cowboys have had troubled scoring points this season. And when they do score points, most of it happens late in the game as the team has scored three of it’s four touchdowns this season in the fourth quarter. To say this offense is sluggish out of the gate would be an understatement. Of course, we couldn’t say that about them in Week 2 against the New York Giants. The Cowboys struck quick, scoring on a 64-yard passing play on just the third play from scrimmage. The Cowboys got ahead and stayed ahead en route to their only win of the season so far.
The Cowboys offense needs to come out swinging. There is a lot of doubt in Big D right now about the capability of this offense and a good way to answer that would be to come out firing on all cylinders. The Cowboys did that against the Giants and that helped sooth the pain and suffering endured against Carolina, but then the offense immediately went back into it’s funk again. A first-quarter score would be fantastic, but don’t stop there. The Lions are capable of putting points on the board so Dallas needs to put their foot on the gas and keep it there.
Heavy dose of Zeke
Right on cue, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game took off after two rough outings - just like he does every season. Elliott rushed 16 times for 127 yards and looked really good running the ball. I don’t know if Zeke’s slow start to the season is related to getting acclimated to new offensive linemen every year, but you can definitely see him exhibit more patience as he scopes out his running lanes.
The Lions defense will give him running lanes. Detroit is ranked dead last in rushing yards allowed this season, giving up an average of 149 yards per game. They allowed 169 yards to the New York Jets in Week 1 and then turned around and allowed 190 yards to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. It should be noted that Isiah Crowell and Matt Breida each scampered off for 60+ runs to boost those rushing totals, but that’s okay. Zeke can bust out big plays too. And the Lions are well aware of that.
Kerryon my wayward son
The Cowboys must be able to stop the Lions rushing attack. It’s weird saying that considering the Lions just completed a stretch of 70 straight games without a 100-yard rusher. 70 games! Do you know how many games 70 games are? Of course you do, I just told you - it’s 70 games. That’s inconceivable!
But alas, that streak is over as the Lions feasted on a New England Patriots run defense that allowed 159 total rushing yards. As luck would have it, the Cowboys now get a Lions team that is starting to figure out their running game. And that answer comes in the form of the Lions second-round draft pick Kerryon Johnson.
Johnson looked very nimble and it seems logical that his workload should increase after an impressive outing last week. His swift cuts could lead to some open rushing lanes and without the Cowboys All-Pro linebacker on the field, the run defense will be under the microscope. Rookie Leighton Vander Esch will get his first career start on Sunday and he’s been looking pretty good in recent weeks. He’ll get plenty of chances to make tackles on Sunday with a running back charge that consists of not only Johnson, but LaGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick as well.
Don’t let Stafford dance
The Lions run a lot of quick passing plays to allow their receivers to get yards in space. Whether it’s slant route to slot receiver Golden Tate or a dump off to receiving back Riddick, these weapons are very useful for Stafford to keep the chains moving. Tate and Riddick are first and third respectively in receptions on the team. Stafford also likes to throw quick-outs to let his other receivers run around as well. This should put the Cowboys defense on high alert in attacking the receivers close to the line of scrimmage and will required the defenders to tackle well to keep these plays as small gains.
While those smaller plays can eat away the yardage, the Cowboys must protect against the deep ball. Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay are two major weapons that can hurt the Cowboys deep. There are times when Stafford will roll out to his right and create space to step up and make a big throw. The secondary will need to be sharp, but the Cowboys pass rush has to show up in this game. DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, and Randy Gregory - all have to get pressure and keep him from having too much space to operate. Stafford won’t beat anyone with his legs in terms of rushing yards, but allowing him to climb the pocket or roam around to free up a clear launching pad could be very detrimental for the Cowboys.
Battle of the QBs
Both teams will try to establish the running game, but the play of the quarterback will likely determine the winner of this one. Stafford had a horrid first outing this year when he was passing out interceptions like door prizes. But he has since settled down and was much more Stafford-like against the Patriots on Sunday.
The Lions defense is going to do what every team tries to do against Dallas these days - take Zeke away and challenge Dak to beat them. Prescott has not been up for this challenge during the Cowboys two losses and opponents are going to ride that out until he can show otherwise. Dak needs a good game to give his Cowboys team a shot. Unfortunately, this Lions secondary doesn’t exactly entice a quarterback to go out and make plays against them. All-Pro Darius Slay is one of the game’s top cover corners. Glover Quin is no slouch at safety. And nickel corner Quandre Diggs has taken steps forward and become a reliable piece to the Lions’ secondary. He wasted no time coming away with a pick-six as he took it to the house on the Lions first play of the 2018 season.
It’s a tough secondary, but Dak is going to have to deliver. He can’t just sit back and throw four yard dump offs to Geoff Swaim all day. He’s going to have to play some good football to get the Cowboys back to .500, but the only question is - is he up for the challenge?
What things will you be keeping an eye out for on Sunday against Detroit?