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After losing in Seattle, the Cowboys go home and host the Detroit Lions. They’re in the first year under new head coach Matt Patricia, and the team has progressively gotten better each game. They were utterly picked apart in Week One by the New York Jets, of all teams, narrowly lost to Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers, and then thoroughly beat Bill Belichick and the Patriots last week. Everything came together for Detroit in that game: their offense became balanced as rookie running back Kerryon Johnson became the Lions’ first rusher of over 100 yards in a game since 2013, and the exotic defense that features multiple fronts started clicking.
And the defensive fronts will give Dallas trouble, specifically. They line up in 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, and plenty of other creative ways. As such, there are a lot of players who get action on the field, including the likes of Sylvester Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, A’Shawn Robinson, Kerry Hyder, Ziggy Ansah (though he will miss the game), and Ricky Jean Francois. As far as linebackers go, Jarrad Davis has been the man at middle linebacker, leading the team in solo tackles. Christian Jones, Devon Kennard, Marquis Flowers, and Eli Harold all get involved in their own ways, too.
Fortunately for Dallas, Ansah has already been ruled out for the game. Still, the Lions have created pressure without him, and both Kennard and Harold are tied for the team lead in sacks with three apiece. The changes in personnel between plays makes it harder for a quarterback to read, and going up against an offense in as much dormancy as Dallas’, it might be the perfect way to unravel this offense.
The offense of the Lions is still their biggest threat, though. Matthew Stafford is a very talented quarterback who has shouldered an unholy load of work in his career. The rise of rookie Johnson at running back might be able to take that load off of him, and Johnson was by far the most underrated running back in the draft. LeGarrette Blount is a dangerous complement in the running game, while Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Kenny Golladay are a sneaky good receiving corps that Stafford utilizes well.
Most importantly for Detroit, their offensive line looks the best it has for quite a while. Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner make for a very good pair of book end offensive tackles, and both center Graham Glasgow and right guard TJ Lang were pretty good last year. Rookie Frank Ragnow will slot in at left guard, and may very well end up being their best interior lineman - after a rough start to the season, he was wildly impressive against the Patriots.
Unfortunately for Dallas, that doesn’t make clear any mismatches from a pass rushing perspective. DeMarcus Lawrence will have a fight against Wagner, and Randy Gregory will have a tough time against Decker. The defensive tackles will likely get some pressure up the middle against Glasgow and the rookie, but perhaps the best way to generate pressure in this game in with blitzes. Anthony Brown off the edge or Jaylon Smith are the best bets here.
The best way to stop Detroit’s offense, though, is to throw Stafford off his rhythm. The running game will have success here and there, but it’s a passing offense through and through. Even if Johnson continues his success, this offense isn’t built to win games on their ground attack. And while Stafford is extremely talented, his accuracy gets worse the farther he throws it. And with a secondary that prioritizes tight coverage now, and corners who have the talent to execute the style of play, Stafford will have a hard time to hit receivers regardless of how good his blocking is.
Tight end Luke Willson probably has the best potential for a big game here, as he’ll be the one covered by a linebacker or safety. Still, Willson is no athletic freak and while he’ll probably lead the team in receptions in this game, it shouldn’t go for too many yards. As long as the secondary can maintain its coverage, Stafford will struggle.
As mentioned before, the versatility of this Lions defense will help mask their weaknesses. The biggest issue is if those interior defenders get to go up against a Frederick-less offensive line, as Robinson in particular can bully around Joe Looney and shrink the pocket.
The Lions’ secondary is not without talent, as Glover Quin is quietly underrated as a safety, and Darius Slay is as opportunistic as cornerbacks come. Last week against Seattle, Dak Prescott had two interceptions off crazy plays that can only be summed up as a symptom of a poor passing attack. Detroit may not have Earl Thomas, but they do currently boast the best passing defense in the NFL. However, the Lions also have the worst run defense in the NFL.
This is where Dallas has to take advantage if they want to win. If the offensive line can hold up for Ezekiel Elliott, he’ll bust through this defense and juke through the defenders. It’s crazy that this needs to be said, but Elliott deserves 20+ carries in this game more than any other. If the running game can actually be established, it might open up things for receivers such as Michael Gallup, Cole Beasley, and Tavon Austin to get the ball in space and wreak havoc with their ability to pick up yards after the catch.
This might be a game where the Cowboys try to break their offense out of its funk by calling a lot of passes for Dak, but that would be a very ill-advised plan given the Lions’ inability to stop the run. I mean, Matt Breida of all people put up 138 yards on just 11 carries. Imagine what one of the best running backs in the league could do with 20 carries. In the end, this is a game the Cowboys can easily win if they stick to what has worked offensively for them and stay away from the things that don’t. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have seemingly done the opposite of that so far in 2018, and that makes this a game they could easily lose. If they do, falling to 1-3 is effectively a nail in the coffin for a team with much higher hopes than what they’ve shown so far.