A lot has changed since the last time these two teams faced each other. That was December 19, 2015 in Dallas, and the Jets won the game 19-16. New York went on to finish 10-6 that year but miss the postseason; they haven’t had a winning season since. The Cowboys, meanwhile, were in the final stages of a 4-12 campaign largely due to the loss of Tony Romo to injury.
Neither Dak Prescott nor Ezekiel Elliott were on that team. In fact, of the full roster from the Cowboys’ 2015 season, only 12 players remain on the team today, four of them playing on the offensive line. Additionally, Kellen Moore came in to play quarterback early on in that game, throwing three picks.
Now, Moore will be calling plays for Dak and Zeke, along with an offense that needs to finally get off to a hot start in a game. During the Cowboys’ three-game winning streak, their offense (which ranks first in the NFL in total yards and ninth in scoring) only scored once on their opening drive, and it was a field goal. They were held to one touchdown against the Saints and while they put up 24 points against the Packers, the offense didn’t score a point until there were six minutes left in the third quarter.
The biggest problem with the offense last week was poor execution. It seemed as if Moore bounced back from a poorly called game against the Saints, but Amari Cooper had a few missteps and Dak Prescott threw some bad picks that put the team in a hole early on. Add in that left tackle Tyron Smith missed the game and that right tackle La’el Collins left early with an injury, and it was a recipe for offensive disaster.
Luckily, the Cowboys could get Smith back this week and while Collins is still unlikely to start against the Jets, he’s making the kind of progress that probably means he’ll only miss this one game. But the Cowboys’ problems stem from far bigger issues than their offensive line, which has mostly been great this season. Drops and wrong reads repeatedly killed momentum against the Packers.
But the bigger concern for Dallas is their defense, which got completely run over by Aaron Jones of all people. The defensive line was consistently playing out of position and had poor gap integrity all game, so they need to rebound in a big way. Similarly, the play of Leighton Vander Esch has been up and down all year, and Jaylon Smith hasn’t reached 2018 levels yet. The pass defense has been solid, and they haven’t allowed a touchdown through the air in three straight weeks now.
But against Le’Veon Bell, this defense will need to step up if they want to avoid what happened last week. Bell isn’t lighting up defenses like he did in Pittsburgh, but it’s no secret that head coach Adam Gase has built this offense around Bell. Even though New York has two vastly underrated wideouts in Robby Anderson and Jamison Crowder, Bell has more receiving targets than either of them; he even has more catches than Anderson has targets.
The dynamic running back has seen a whopping 98 touches through four games; Crowder is second in touches with just 23. Granted, a lot of that is due to the absence of Sam Darnold for three of those games, but even so the highly-paid running back had 23 touches in Week 1 with Darnold, including the Jets’ only touchdown reception so far this year.
While Bell has been shouldering a heavy load, he’s been unable to do much with it. He has yet to surpass 70 rushing yards in a single game and is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. A lot of this has to do with a porous offensive line that ranks last in both run and pass blocking according to Football Outsiders. NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling named them the second worst line in the NFL as well. It’ll be a rough welcome back for Darnold, who is cleared to play against Dallas.
This game has shades of the Cowboys’ matchup against the 49ers from 2017. After dropping two straight games, the most recent one coming to the Packers, the Cowboys traveled to San Francisco to take on a winless team with a first-year head coach and obliterated them 40-10 in an effort to get back on track. Dallas faces a very similar situation here, but will have to avoid falling into a trap against a team that’s getting a boost of their own in Darnold’s return.