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Predicting the Thanksgiving matchup against the Raiders: It all starts up front

The Cowboys community holds their breath, as Dallas faces yet another game where we find out if they can rebound or if this is eerily similar to past seasons.

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Back to square one. For the second time in three weeks, the Cowboys have us holding our breath, hoping that last week’s loss was another fluke game. This team seems different, better than we ever could have expected, but they are back in “prove it” territory.

After the Broncos’ loss, the Dallas Cowboys were gifted a “get right” matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Los Vegas Raiders are similarly a team that Dallas should beat. But whether it be a history of bad Thanksgiving performances or the scars from previous years, this game is scary. So, what should we expect?

If you believe the oddsmakers, like our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook, the Cowboys are healthy 7.5-point favorites. But teams don’t win on paper or in the sportsbooks, so let’s dig in to our Thanksgiving feast.

The Cowboys offense

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

It is hard to believe a team can have two fluke games in three weeks, but that seems to be the case. Both poor offensive showings were accompanied by two of Dak Prescott’s worst performances in his career. Regardless, it is time for the offense to get rolling again.

Oddly, the three worst offensive games from the Cowboys this season have come against three AFC West opponents. But since the bye week, the Raiders defense has been bottom-three in the league. This is yet another favorable game for the offense to recapture its momentum.

But what will it take for that to happen?

It all starts up front. When Dak struggles, it has been in games with no rushing attack to aid him. Prescott is a top-five quarterback in the NFL this season, but he isn’t a magician that can do it all. He needs help from the run game.

Luckily for the Cowboys, they likely get Tyron Smith back this week. Which is perfect timing considering the Dallas run game is rushing for 148 yards per game for 5.4 per carry with Smith, and 76 yards per game at 3.9 per carry without him.

Even luckier for Dallas is that the Los Vegas run defense will surrender yards on the ground. The 132 yards per game for 4.5 a carry that the Raiders are giving up are both bottom eight in the league.

But teams have found success stopping the Cowboys by overloading the box, stopping the run, and getting to Prescott before he can throw. This is not a “blueprint” as teams might think, but it has worked, and it might make it hard to run.

Meaning that even more important than the ground game is the offensive line’s performance in pass protection, another area where have Tyron Smith should help out. With Smith, Dak throws with pressure in the pocket on just 28% of his dropbacks, but that number rises to 35% without him.

This offense’s success starts and ends up front. The line needs to give Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard room to run. But inevitably, the Raiders will try and follow the “blueprint” and send extra defenders on the blitz. From there, the line needs to give Dak Prescott enough time to get through his reads and find the open receiver.

This is a winnable game against an unintimidating defense. But that is what we thought about the Broncos and Chiefs, so let’s hope the offense rebounds again.

The Cowboys defense

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

As a Cowboys fan this time of the year, what are you thankful for? With a 7-3 team that, despite a few recent bumps, looks like a contender, we have a lot to celebrate. But of everything there is to be grateful for, Dan Quinn should be at the top of the list.

The Cowboys have allowed an average of 17 points per game since the bye week. That is a four-game average, just one year after they allowed less than 20 points only three times in sixteen games. Keep in mind that the Cowboys have done this without their best edge rusher and Randy Gregory missing time.

The Raiders offense has seen a steep decline over recent weeks. There are obvious reasons for this, and it is understandable. But the Cowboys need to take advantage.

It is beating a dead horse at this point, but Micah Parsons needs to have a big day off the edge. The Raiders line ranks 31st in run blocking and 22nd in pass protection. For a Dallas team that should once again be without Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, Parsons needs to wreak havoc in the pass rush.

Behind a poor run-blocking offensive line, the Raiders’ rushing game shouldn’t be an issue. The 84 yards per game at 3.7 per attempt ranks among the worst in the NFL by both metrics. This is an offense that runs through Derek Carr, and that should be the case on Thursday.

However, Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, and DeSean Jackson are not Tyreek Hill. This is a favorable matchup for a significantly improved Cowboys secondary.

The one threat that Dallas has to worry about is Darren Waller. The Raiders tight end accounts for 21% of Carr’s targets, 20% of the receiving yards and has a higher average depth of target this year than Michael Gallup.

For the third week in a row, the Cowboys essentially face a wide receiver disguised as a tight end. That is precisely how they need to play it. Treat him like a wide receiver, with either Jourdan Lewis or one of the safeties covering him and take away Las Vegas’ best pass-catcher.

This is not the Chiefs offense or even the Broncos offense, for that matter. The Raiders have one offensive weapon that Carr can reliably trust. Shut him down, while allowing Micah Parsons to do what he has done all season. Since the rushing game will inevitably be easy to stop, the Cowboys just need to play solid coverage, which they have done all year.

It would be a cruel joke, but right on brand in recent years, for the offense to find its groove again while the defense begins to struggle. But we have faith in you, Dan Quinn.

Coaching and special teams

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

And for the final redemption story following a down week, we get to coaching. Because man was the Chiefs game a horrendous coaching performance.

We have already discussed what it will take for the offense to succeed, and Kellen Moore definitely needs to rebound from last Sunday. But he should be just fine, so what about Mike McCarthy?

It was odd to see McCarthy last week, who has typically been an aggressive coach, punting late into the game and kicking field goals on fourth and manageable. Where was the faith in the offense that McCarthy has shown all season?

No gimmicks or “Monkey Butt” this week; McCarthy simply needs to get aggressive again, keep the foot on the gas, and get back to the coaching that won six straight games. We don’t need conservative decisions; we went through that for nine years.

This is another big game for the Dallas coaching staff. They once again must prove that they can move past a disappointing loss and right the ship. Cowboys’ fans are willing to believe this year is different, as we have the last twenty, but it needs to be proven on Thursday.

There is no need to discuss the Raiders’ coaching. Rich Bisaccia was thrust into the head coaching role on short notice, and he is doing about as well as anyone could expect given what Las Vegas has gone through.

Outside of a couple of kick returns last week, special teams has played near-perfect football since the bye. On top of their blocked punts, almost adding another this past week, they have two penalties over their last four games and one in their previous three.

Even Greg Zuerlein has been excellent lately, missing no kicks inside the 40 since week three, and that includes extra points. On field goals within 50 yards this year, Zuerlein is close to a 90% placekicker. With a Cowboys offense that can score touchdowns efficiently, he doesn’t need to do much, but he has nevertheless been decent.

Just keep it up against the Raiders. If special teams is going to change the outcome in this game, we have to hope it is in our direction. John Fassel has been under-appreciated given his slow start, but we should have faith in him by now.

After a loss, it is natural for fans to be on edge. This is not an attempt to ease your fears; the 2021 Cowboys are still a team that most are unsure about, myself included. However, this is an entirely winnable game that should allow them to get back on track.

But winnable and winning are two entirely separate notions. After two losses in three weeks, the Cowboys need multiple weeks of the latter. And it starts on Thanksgiving Day, against the last AFC West team on the schedule. Prove you are truly different this year, Dallas.

Analytics Projection:

Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 72.8%

Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 31, Oakland Raiders 20

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