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Pregame shuffle: Cowboys at Rams (Week 5)

Riding high, the Cowboys get a real test on the road this week.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The Cowboys have rattled off three straight wins with a backup quarterback, and the advanced stats show that, in the sea of mediocrity that is the NFL right now, Dallas is treading water with the best of them. But the test will be much harder this week as they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams.

The last time the Cowboys faced the Rams, it was Mike McCarthy’s first game as the team’s head coach. The Cowboys lost that game by just three points, in large part due to a controversial offensive pass interference penalty against Michael Gallup. But these teams are very different now; for starters, Matthew Stafford is where Jared Goff once was, and Cooper Rush is all but confirmed to be making his fifth start in this game.

There’s also the little detail that the Rams enter this matchup as the reigning Super Bowl champs, though their 2-2 record might be enough to qualify as suffering from a Super Bowl hangover. The Rams got absolutely fileted by the Bills in Week 1 and then proceeded to eke out one-score wins over both the Falcons and Cardinals. Then, this past Monday night, the Rams got blown out by the 49ers, marking their seventh straight loss to the division rival in regular season games.

It’s been tough sledding for the Rams in 2022, that’s for sure. The offense seems to be in disarray. Head coach Sean McVay, who also calls the plays, has become one of the most successful head coaches in the NFL by employing an efficient rushing attack that perfectly marries the pass game to it, but that hasn’t been the case so far this year.

The Rams are 30th in rushing yards and their average of 3.3 yards per rush is 29th in the league. The offensive line has struggled to open holes: Rams running backs have the second-lowest amount of yards before contact per carry, and the offensive line is 20th in run block win rate and 23rd in adjusted line yards. This has led to the team ranking 19th in rushing DVOA, the lowest it’s ever been under McVay.

But as bad as the Rams’ running game has been, their passing attack is even worse. Ranking 22nd in passing DVOA, this unit has gone MIA as of late. Stafford hasn’t thrown a touchdown since he was three minutes into the second half of Week 2. And the quarterback who led the NFL in interceptions a year ago also currently has the lead for picks this year.

Like with the running game, much of the problem stems from an offensive line that lost two starters in the offseason and have been playing without two more due to injury this year. The Rams are 19th in pass block win rate, which isn’t terrible, but Stafford holding the ball for an average of 2.76 seconds has led to him being the second most sacked quarterback behind Carson Wentz.

Many of Stafford’s issues mirror Joe Burrow, who this Dallas defense stifled a few weeks ago. Stafford is a gunslinger and his default mode is to go deep; he’s finished inside the top 10 in intended air yards each of the last three years. Defenses have figured this out and are devoting more energy to taking away the deep shot, causing Stafford to hold the ball longer and, ultimately, throw shorter passes.

This also allows defenses to generate pressure without blitzing, which Stafford has historically killed. This season, Stafford is completing 78.8% of his passes with a 121.1 passer rating and no turnovers against the blitz. When he’s not blitzed, Stafford’s completion rate drops down to 68.4% with a 69.9 passer rating; all six of his interceptions have come without a blitz.

That bodes well for a Dallas defense that excels at rushing the passer, and Micah Parsons leads the way as more and more talking heads start to ponder whether or not he’s the best defensive player in the NFL. His only real competition for such a title? Aaron Donald of the Rams.

Donald has been an unstoppable force for a pretty good Rams defense, which also features Jalen Ramsey and Bobby Wagner. But this unit is still not meeting expectations, and they’ve been vulnerable against the pass. Despite blitzing at the sixth highest rate, Los Angeles has the fourth fewest sacks in the league and are dead last in pressure rate.

On the other hand, the defense has been pretty stout against the run. Ranking third in run defense DVOA, they’re allowing the ninth fewest yards per carry. The Cowboys have opened up the passing game gradually for Rush, and it took another step last week with Gallup’s return, but this has still been a run first offense that will undoubtedly have some challenges against this unit.

Based on how these first four games have unfolded for both teams, this looks like a game that’s destined to be a low scoring but close contest. Defensively, the Cowboys should be able to continue their success this year against a struggling Rams offense. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp and tight end Tyler Higbee are accounting for nearly 65% of the team’s receptions; if Trevon Diggs can mitigate Kupp’s impact, and the returning Jayron Kearse can do to Higbee what he did to several tight ends last year, that should be a recipe for success.

On the flip side, though, the Cowboys offense will be facing its toughest test since Week 1. Rush should have some opportunities against this secondary, but it stands to reason that he won’t be able to lean on the ground game as much in this one. That makes this the biggest challenge for Rush since he took over under center, and his ability to answer the call will likely dictate the outcome of this one.

All of this pools together to suggest that the Cowboys have every chance of winning this game, but they’ll need to be at their very best to do it. The Rams may be nursing a hangover right now, but they still have the talent that scored them a championship a year ago, and it’s only a matter of time until this team sobers up.

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