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What is important about the Cowboys game at the Ravens

Looking beyond both the potential draft pick and the “race” for the NFC East, here are some things that make this one matter.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns
It’s not just Lamar Jackson the team has to worry about.
Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

It’s odd to still be waiting for the Dallas Cowboys to finish up the NFL week against the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday, when they should have already played them on Thursday. But COVID and the league’s protocols had other ideas, so here we are. Dallas wound up with a very long week, and will have a short one before their next game against the Cincinnati Bengals. That is looking a bit too far ahead, however, and there are certainly a ton of things to try and take care of in Baltimore.

We all know about the way the draft order could line up for the Cowboys, as well as the fact that, despite only having three wins, they are still very much in the chase for the automatic NFC East playoff bid. Win or lose, those things will remarkably still be pretty much true going into week 14. And win or lose, here are some things that Dallas needs to do in the game.

Put up more than token resistance to the running game

The Ravens are one of the best running teams in the NFL, currently ranking third in total yards rushing. They come at you with a multitude of options. Lamar Jackson, who is expected to be available for the game after being on the COVID/IR list, leads the team with 575 yards, many of which come when he escapes a pass rush, but he is also a threat on designed runs as well. From the RB position, Gus Edwards has 386 yards, J.K. Dobbins is right behind him with 380, and Mark Ingram, who has missed three games, has 232. Most importantly, all average over four yards a carry, with both Jackson and Dobbins over five. With this group looking to be at full strength this week, that gives the Ravens the ability to keep throwing fresh and very effective bodies out there. They are very run-dependent, as their passing offense is next to last in the league in yards per game.

Facing that running attack, the Cowboys have a defensive line that has not been playing well against the run, and linebackers that are far too often out of position or just getting beaten. The Washington Football Team, which is a bit less than average on the ground, ripped them up for 182 yards and a whopping 14 first downs running. Facing a team that has built its offensive identity around rushing, Mike Nolan has to come up with some answers. At the same time, he can’t let the Ravens exploit a focus on stopping the run. Jackson is not a great passer, but he is dangerous if you let him have opportunities. He still averages 7.1 yards an attempt, and that can certainly beat you. It is better than Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and every current starting QB in the NFC East. The defense has to also keep the threat of him taking off and running under control. That is not an easy task, either.

Baltimore runs the ball to win, and the Cowboys must find a way to slow that down. If they can’t, they will just get ground away.

The offensive line

Frankly, this is a major concern every week, with the team down to its fourth and fifth tackles and also missing Zack Martin. Joe Philbin must feel like Sisyphus watching that boulder roll back down the hill every week after working so hard to patch something together. Against the Football Team, things went downhill on the first drive as both Cameron Erving and Martin were hurt. Without managing at least competent play, the line will not open holes for the backs or give Andy Dalton time to throw. A measure of offensive effectiveness is mandatory. They can hardly put the load on the defense to keep them in the game.

The Red Rifle

Speaking of yards per attempt, Dalton is dismal at just 5.7. If he had enough attempts, that would tie him with Sam Darnold for dead last in the league. Part of the problem is that he is just not hitting his receivers enough, but it isn’t entirely his fault. He also is under frequent intense pressure with little time to get the ball out. Given that his best strength may be throwing deep, that is a formula for failure. Perhaps Kellen Moore can do a better job with the play calls, but he is working with some bad elements on the offense. Including the next one.

Running it themselves

With the issues passing the ball, it would be a great help if the Dallas ground game could step up. As mentioned, that is not easy with the problems on the line. The team ranks 17th in yards per game. With the huge investment in Ezekiel Elliott they need more, but Elliott is just not showing a lot of burst, and Tony Pollard has at times been better finding the hole and hitting it. He is not making a huge difference, either, although his 5.0 yards per carry is much better than Elliott’s disappointing 3.9. Elliott is eighth in the league in total yards, but that is clearly a volume stat. He needs to justify getting so many carries.

The Ravens are only average in run defense, but the Cowboys need a much better than average performance even with the other problems. If they can, it could help slow the pass rush a bit, which Dalton could really use.

Then there is that other problem that Elliott is suffering. He has the most fumbles of any back in the league. and has lost more than anyone. His unforced fumble against the Football Team was a huge negative factor in the loss. If he loses another against the Ravens, it is time to start talking seriously about whether he is the lead back the team needs. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say talking more about it, because the thought has already occurred to many.

These are not the only things that the Cowboys need to work on, as things like pass coverage and better plays going for it on fourth down also bear watching, but they are the most likely ways the team can get beat. The staff and players have to figure out how to fix at least some of them, both for this game and the few remaining contests. With the longer than usual time to prepare, failing to do so will be a real condemnation of everyone involved. While many have already turned their focus to the draft, the team needs to build some confidence in itself, because many of the players and presumably most or all of the coaches will be back next season.