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Pregame Shuffle: Cowboys vs. Lions (Week 7)

What Dak being back with the Cowboys will mean.

NFL: NOV 17 Cowboys at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s time to rejoice, Cowboys fans: Dak Prescott is back!

After suffering an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand in a Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers, Prescott has been medically cleared and is widely expected to make his return on Sunday when the Cowboys host the Lions. Backup Cooper Rush did an admirable job in his place, going 4-1 as the starter, and the Cowboys are in a great spot with their franchise quarterback returning.

Dallas stepped up in a big way during Prescott’s absence: the defense played lights out, the special teams made impact plays nearly every time they stepped on the field, and the offense did just enough to scrape by despite all of the challenges they faced. Now, Prescott returns to a team currently ranked fourth in overall team efficiency, and the hope is that he can boost the offensive production enough to make the Cowboys a legitimate contender.

So what do the Cowboys have in the visiting Lions? As the stars of Hard Knocks earlier this year, everyone fell in love with head coach (and former Cowboys player) Dan Campbell and all his energy, but it’s been tough sledding for Detroit this season. They started out strong, narrowly losing to the Eagles in Week 1 and knocking off the Commanders in Week 2. But consecutive one-score losses to the Vikings and Seahawks led to a 29-0 drubbing on the road against the Patriots.

Now, the Lions come off their bye week having had enough time to lick their wounds and figure out what went wrong. It should be noted that last year, in Campbell’s first season at the helm, the Lions got blown out by the Eagles to the tune of 44-6 before they entered their bye. They played their next game with a backup quarterback and managed to tie the Steelers on the road.

This year, the Lions are more comfortable in their schemes and have more talent. Nobody is expecting them to be a playoff team just yet, but the performance in New England was also a bit of a surprise. With everyone focusing on the Cowboys getting Prescott back this week, can the Lions play the role of a trap game?

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time for Campbell’s team. Between last year and this year, the Lions are 13-9 against the spread and three of Campbell’s four wins as head coach have come as the underdog. In other words, overlook these Lions at your own risk.

Detroit currently ranks 25th in overall DVOA, but much of that is due to their defense getting off to a historically bad start. The defense, run by another former Cowboy in Aaron Glenn, is 32nd in defensive DVOA. But the offense is ninth in DVOA while the special teams is 10th. If the Lions can fine tune this defense to produce even average results, they’ll be in good condition.

And the offense has been truly special, with their game against the Patriots being the lone exception. Only the Bills are averaging more yards per play on the year, and Detroit has fielded one of the most explosive run games in recent history. Ranking fifth in rush DVOA and averaging the second most yards per rush (behind the Ravens, who get boosted by Lamar Jackson being a freak), Detroit has topped 140 rushing yards in four of their five games this year. They’ve also accomplished much of that without D’Andre Swift, but he is expected to return for this game.

None of that is good news for a Dallas defense that is still struggling against the run. They held up fairly well against the Eagles, another run heavy offense, but the Lions feature a very different type of attack. Much of what the Eagles do has been built around the threat of Jalen Hurts’ running ability, but the Lions know nobody is worried of Jared Goff’s legs. They have a much more varied rushing attack that is designed to attack defenses in their weakest spots.

For the Cowboys, that’s been whichever side of the defense DeMarcus Lawrence isn’t on. Lawrence is one of the most underrated run defenders in the league, but Dallas has been without their second best run defending EDGE - Tarell Basham - since Week 1. For what it’s worth, Basham had his 21-day practice window to return from the injured reserve activated this week, though it would be a shock to see him return in time for this game. The Cowboys will have to brainstorm other ways to stop this rushing attack.

Perhaps the best way to do that involves Prescott. The offense is expected to see at least a moderate uptick in production with the quarterback returning, but Prescott really couldn’t have picked a better game to return for. The Lions defense has been spectacularly bad this year. Here’s a list of things they’re last in the league for right now: points allowed, yards per play, net yards per pass attempt, sacks, and pass defense DVOA. They’re also second to last in run defense DVOA, takeaways, and rushing touchdowns allowed.

It’s not unrealistic to expect Prescott and this offense to have a good day against this defense. If the Cowboys can build a lead early on, they can force the Lions to start throwing it more. And while Goff has been having a career year thus far, he’s been at his worst when defenses have been able to rush the passer easily. Goff’s completion rate drops from 64.1% to 49.1% and his passer rating drops from 100.3 to 75.3 when pressured. Dallas leads the league in sacks and are third in pressure rate, and while the Lions offensive line has been one of the league’s best in pass protection this year, they haven’t faced Micah Parsons yet.

This is a game the Cowboys should easily win, but several factors remain uncertain. How will Prescott look? Will the Lions get back to their offensive domination with a healthy Swift? Have they figured out their defensive issues during the bye week? And can the Cowboys avoid being the next team to get upset by this feisty Lions team?

The Cowboys are favored in this game for a reason, and they’ve shown the last few weeks that they’re a quarterback away from being truly dangerous. Now they get that quarterback, so this game is the first chance to prove they can be all that. It won’t be a cakewalk, but this game has all the makings of an announcement for this Cowboys team.

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