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Cowboys vs. Rams: Five things to watch including how the Cowboys defense has stopped big-play offenses

Here are five things worth keeping an eye out for on Saturday.

Los Angeles Rams v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys will travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs. This will be the ninth time Dallas has played the Rams in the postseason, which is more than any other opponent in franchise history, however it’s been 33 years since these teams last met in the playoffs. In the 1985 season, the Rams beat Dallas 20-0 in the wild card game. Running back Eric Dickerson ran for 248 yards in that contest. That game would ultimately be Tom Landry’s last playoff appearance.

It’s a different time now. The Cowboys were on the decline back then, but now are a team on the rise. But so are the Rams. Lead by their offensive guru/head coach Sean McVay, the Rams are the top scoring team in the NFC, averaging just about 33 points a game. The Cowboys strength has been their defense as they’ve allowed the second-fewest points in the NFC. Each team has play-makers on both sides of the ball and this should be an exciting game to watch. Here are five things to watch when the Cowboys play the Rams on Saturday night.

1. Will the real first-team All-Pro RB please stand up?

This team features two of the top running backs in the game. Since entering the league in 2015, no running back has more touches, rushing yards, or total scrimmage yards than Todd Gurley. But then in 2016 Ezekiel Elliott entered the league and that changed things a bit. Since Zeke entered the league, no running back has more touches, rushing yards, or total scrimmage yards than Ezekiel Elliott.

The battle of the running backs will be important. Gurley finished third in the league in rushing with 1,251 yards, despite missing two games. Only seven NFL teams held opponents to an average of less than 100 rushing yards per game this season. The New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, and Philadelphia Eagles are three of those teams. Gurley’s yards against those teams are:

  • Saints = 68 yards
  • Bears = 28 yards
  • Eagles = 48 yards

The Rams lost all three of those games. The Cowboys are also one of the seven teams that have held teams to an average of less 100 yards rushing. Last week, this group faced the top rushing team in the league this season and they held Chris Carson (who was fifth in rushing) to just 20 yards. Led by Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, this Cowboys defense has been fierce against the run.

While stopping Gurley will be important for Dallas, the Rams have demonstrated the ability to survive despite not being able to stop the run. The Rams are 8-3 in games where their defense has given up 100+ rushing yards. They know they’re not great against the run and have been able to win anyways.

2. Leighton for a Gurley like you

Keeping the Rams star running back in check in the rushing game is just half the battle because Gurley has become a very effective receiver out of the backfield. Over the last two seasons, he’s compiled 1,368 yards receiving through 29 games. That equates to a 47 yard per game average. That’s a nice little bonus to get from your running back.

The last time he faced Dallas was in Week 4 of the previous season and he reeled off 215 total yards, 94 of which came as a receiver. Sean Lee was hurt that game and a very raw Jaylon Smith was wondering about like a baby giraffe. The Cowboys had no antidote to the fatal blow that Todd Gurley delivered that day.

But things are different now. Jaylon Smith is different now. And while Sean Lee is healthy, he’s not even in the mix that much thanks to the emergence of rookie sensation Leighton Vander Esch. The Cowboys had their reasons why they loved Vander Esch and one of those reasons is that he can cover people. He can flat-out fly from sideline to sideline and will be tasked with stopping one of the game’s best offensive talents.

3. Don’t Goff it up

To survive in the playoffs, you have to take care of the football. The Cowboys have done a pretty good job of that this season, allowing the sixth-fewest turnovers in the league this year. But the Rams are really good at causing turnovers, as they are third in the league with 30 takeaways. Aided by a strong defensive line, the Rams defense force a lot of fumbles.

Prescott ability to secure the ball is important. The Cowboys young quarterback has been criticized a lot this year because of his ball security and for good reason. He’s tied for second in the league with 12 fumbles on the year. But do you know who’s he’s tied with?

Jared Goff.

The good news is Dak’s gotten better as the season’s progressed. That is not the case for Goff. Here are each QB’s fumbles over his last four games:

Prescott = 0

Goff = 5

Taking care of the ball is important, but don’t be surprised if it’s Goff who’s coughing it up when DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory start knocking him around. Speaking of knocking people around...

4. The game-wrecker

On paper, the Rams have an impressive looking defense, but this group hasn’t been all that great this season. They are 19th in yards allowed (358) and 20th in points allowed (24.0) this season. While they don’t have the best defense, they do have the best defensive player. The Rams gave Donald a six-year, $135 million dollar deal this offseason and the guy is worth every penny. He leads the league with 20.5 sacks, which is ridiculous considering he plays defensive tackle. Even the most ferocious edge rushers can’t keep up with this beast.

Veteran BTB’ers are well aware of Donald as he was a draft crush for many of us back in 2014. Unfortunately, he was selected before the Cowboys turn to pick and they had to settle for that Zack Martin fella. I guess he’s been alright. These two All-Pro’s will have their chance to go head-to-head on Saturday, but the more concerning moments will be when Donald lines up on the other side and goes after the rookie Connor Williams. Look for Donald to exploit that matchup. How well the rookie performs and the help the Cowboys give him could be the difference-maker in this game. They absolutely cannot let 99 blow this game up in the trenches.

Donald led the league with 106 quarterback pressures and Prescott’s had his share of stranger-danger moments this year, but Dak’s a slippery little sucker.

5. Off to the races

Initially, the Cowboys front office got a lot of criticism for trading away a first-round draft pick to acquire the services of Amari Cooper. But good receivers don’t grow on trees. That’s why the New England Patriots were applauded when they gave up a first-round pick to get Brandin Cooks last year. And again, the Rams were also praised for giving up a first-rounder to add Cooks to their offense. Cooks has had four straight seasons with 1,000+ receiving yards, with a career high 1,204 yards this year. But he’s not even the Rams’ leading receiver.

People thought the Rams got ripped off when they signed Robert Woods to a five-year, $34 million deal a couple years ago, but that guy looks like a bargain now. Woods led the Rams in catches (86), yards (1,219), and touchdowns (6) this season, even surpassing the talented Cooks.

The Rams are second to only Kansas City in passing plays greater than 25 yards. They have a total of 40. That would appear to spell big trouble for the Cowboys defense, except check out other teams on this list. The Cowboys have played five teams in the top 10 and they have beaten every one of them.

The Cowboys have some big play-makers of their own. Cooper has come up big for Dallas this season and Tavon Austin is a big-play threat every time the ball is in his hands. He would love to have a big game against his former team. And with each new game, Michael Gallup continues to build a rapport with Prescott. He’s been known to scurry down the sideline a time or two.

With field conditions in question, traction will be key and one big slip could lead to a big, game-changing play. The last time the Cowboys won a playoff game on the road, they had to play on a slop-fest field at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It worked out okay and fans erupted when Alvin Harper took a pass 70 yards to help clinch the game.

We wouldn’t mind seeing something like that happen again.

What will you be watching for on Saturday?

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