The Dallas Cowboys face another game without Dak Prescott. Four weeks ago that would have seemed a very bad thing as they go to the West Coast to face the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. But with a potent, highly effective defense and the surprising performance of Cooper Rush behind center, Dallas is riding a three-game winning streak and looking to stay in the thick of the NFC East race with the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. Winning this game is crucial to that. The Rams are just 2-2 and did not look good against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. That also means they have a short week to prepare. Here are some key questions that the Cowboys have to answer to get that win.
Can the Dallas offense continue to get the job done against Aaron Donald and the L.A. defense?
This game features two of the most dominant defenders in the NFL in Aaron Donald and Micah Parsons. However, the Rams have shown a bit of vulnerability to the pass. They have allowed over 200 yards passing in every game except the win over the Atlanta Falcons. Two times the opponent got close to 300 yards through the air. The Cowboys have not been highly effective passing, just averaging 221 yards per game with Rush starting, but they have been consistent.
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Now they have Michael Gallup back, and he should be on less of a pitch count this week. CeeDee Lamb has steadily established himself as WR1, and flirted with his first 100-yard game this year in the win over the Washington Commanders. Noah Brown has shown he is a solid WR3 with his work so far.
Even with Donald, the Rams only have seven sacks this season. Rush has been excellent in avoiding trouble as Kellen Moore has him getting the ball out quickly and the offensive line has been more effective protecting him than we had expected given the injury to Tyron Smith and the way things had to be shuffled. If that continues to work, avoiding negative plays, and if Rush can avoid the mistakes that led to two interceptions that were cancelled by penalties last week, the passing game should be able to get it done. This will be a big challenge, however, as Donald should be attacking the weakest part of the offensive line at left guard.
Running the ball is another question, as L.A. has gotten stingy since the first game, not allowing more than 90 yards over the last three weeks. Dallas did not run the ball at all well against a Commanders team that also has a stout defensive line. Moore has stated that the team needs to stick with the run, which could be a problem this week if they get negative plays against the Rams. Moore needs to be aware if the run game doesn’t succeed and trust Rush to move the team.
Can the Cowboys defense keep throttling the opponent?
There is no question Dallas has leaned on Dan Quinn’s crew to win the last three games. They have not allowed any team this year to get to 20 points, and all four of their opponents have been held to one touchdown.
This looks like a very favorable matchup for them. The pass rush has been ferocious. It is tied for the second most sacks this season so far. It goes far beyond that, as the pressure has affected so many throws, leading to two intentional grounding calls against Washington and a lot of other missed throws. The Rams have not done well at all protecting Stafford, and are tied for second most sacks given up. That is an interesting symmetry between the two, and could foreshadow a rough day for Stafford against Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and the rest of the Cowboys pass rush. Further, the Rams also have a beaten up offensive line, with two starters out last week. This could be a feast for those QB hunters.
Now they are going to line up against Matthew Stafford. He is playing through an elbow issue, and the decline from last year is obvious.
Maybe Stafford's elbow really is an issue. 2022 is the 1st pic. 2021 is the 2nd. Could be a result of play calling but we shall see. pic.twitter.com/3qvq9BS9Ts— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) October 5, 2022
With the way the secondary has been playing, that looks like they will feast this week. You find yourself just hoping Stafford will challenge Trevon Diggs, because so far that has been all good for the Cowboys.
Diggs will have the unenviable task of covering Cooper Kupp, however. Kupp is clearly the main threat to worry about. He already has 42 receptions on the year, with the rest of the Rams receiving corps just accumulating 64. That works out to 40% of the pass offense in Kupp, so if Diggs can even slow him down, the L.A. pass offense could be very limited. Add in some sacks, and this does look very good for Dallas.
The biggest issue for the Cowboys defense has been the running game. They have allowed 137.5 yards per game rushing, and have been vulnerable to mobile quarterbacks. Fortunately for them, they don’t have to worry too much about Stafford taking off on them. He has a grand total of 10 yards rushing so far. As a team, the Rams have only averaged 68.5 yards a game. Cam Akers is still a threat, but this looks like a matchup that will let Dallas keep things in check.
Will red zone woes continue?
The biggest weakness for the Cowboys’ offense has been their performance inside the red zone. They are only scoring touchdowns on 55.6% of their trips there. They come away with points thanks to Brett Maher, as long as he doesn’t have his kick blocked. But they clearly need to get better in close. And they need to get close more often, with only nine trips there this year.
Balancing that is how the defense has made it even harder on opponents, who get TDs just 42.9% of the time they cross the Dallas 20. That certainly needs to continue, and even better, they have only allowed the other team to get there seven times all year.
Can they get more hidden yards?
The Cowboys had terrible field position to start their drives against Washington through the first three and a half quarters. Before they got the ball in Commanders territory on their last two possessions, thanks to DaRon Bland’s interception and a turnover on downs when the game was pretty much out of reach for Washington, they were getting the ball on average at their own 19. That was a long way to go for Rush and the offense, which is not exactly a big play unit with the QB2 running things. Meanwhile, the Commanders had an average starting position of their own 28, although that was increased a good bit by Bryan Anger’s shanked punt deep in his own territory.
That needs to improve. There was a lot of hope for KaVontae Turpin to make a positive impact here, but teams have done a great job of denying him opportunities. He has only managed 41 yards per game total, and they need more than that. Plus the defense needs more three and outs. They have done an excellent job stopping opponents in their own territory, but they allow them to get out of the shadow of their own end zone too much.
Will the Super Bowl hangover continue?
Dallas already handed the runner-up Cincinnati Bengals a loss. This year, the winning Rams seem to be afflicted as well, perhaps largely due to Stafford’s struggles. That needs to continue. It is much less tangible than the other factors, but if it holds for another week, it would certainly be welcome for the Cowboys.