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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Six key players against the Rams

Who will make a big difference for Dallas?

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys
Getting the QB of the defense back is big.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are riding an improbable three-game win streak without Dak Prescott. Now they face the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and hope to keep the streak going with Cooper Rush at quarterback. It is a challenge, but with the offensive struggles the Rams are having and the way the Dallas defense is playing, it is hardly insurmountable.

Rush’s play has been key to the success so far. That has been widely discussed. But we all know that winning depends on the eleven guys on the field all getting the job done. Besides Rush, who will play a key role for the Cowboys if they pull off another win? Our Tom Ryle and David Howman offer some candidates.

Tom: Let’s start with what looks to be a welcome return from injury, safety Jayron Kearse.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

He is the player who wears the green dot on his helmet to get the calls from Dan Quinn and serve as the defensive quarterback for the team. He does so while playing a hybrid LB/S role. The Cowboys have done well in his absence, partly due to the outstanding play of Donovan Wilson. Now, with Kearse a full participant in practice and on track to get back on the field, the defense is only going to get better. When you already have one of the best in the league, that is good.

Dallas has been excellent against the pass, but has shown a vulnerability to the run. Kearse will help address that. Not only is he a sure tackler that seldom misses his assignment, his getting everyone in the right alignment and on task pre-snap will make things better. Unlike some previous quarterbacks who have hurt the team, Matthew Stafford is not a threat to run the ball, with a paltry 10 yards rushing total this year. The Rams are also the third worst team in yards per game on the ground as their offensive line has been battered and beaten. That will force them to rely on the pass, and that plays right into the hands of the Cowboys. Kearse is also not a detriment at all in coverage. Getting him back should be a major part in continuing the defensive dominance that has helped carry this team.

David: I couldn’t agree more on Kearse, especially with his reputation for erasing tight ends as the Cowboys face Tyler Higbee, who’s second in just about every receiving category for these Rams. That brings me to the next key player, which is Trevon Diggs.

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Higbee is second on the Rams because the guy ahead of him is Cooper Kupp, who won the receiving triple crown a year ago. He’s once again a focal point for this Rams passing attack, and the Cowboys will need to mitigate his impact to keep themselves from getting into a shootout. As the best cornerback on the team, Diggs will factor into that in some way or another.

The most obvious choice would be to have Diggs shadow Kupp, who mostly operates out of the slot but moves around plenty. I feel confident about that matchup given how refined Diggs’ play has looked this year. But Dan Quinn could go a different direction, and have Diggs focus on someone like Allen Robinson while centering the rest of the coverage on Kupp. Either approach has its merits, and both of them require Diggs to be on his game, which I think he will be regardless of assignment.

Tom: Diggs is always important to this team. But let’s jump to offense, and this one is a bit of a twofer.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys seem likely to go with some rotation of Connor McGovern and Jason Peters at left guard, and how that holds up against the Rams is going to be crucial in protecting Rush and getting the running game on track. While he will probably not be lining up against them exclusively, they should see a good dose of Aaron Donald across the line. Donald is still arguably the best defensive player in the league, no disrespect to Micah Parsons and his campaign to unseat Donald. It is important to at least slow Donald on passing downs and keep him from disrupting running plays. We need the McGovern/Peters left gaurd-by-committee thing to hold up. If not, it could be a rough day offensively.

David: I’ll stick with the offense and go Dalton Schultz.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Schultz came back from injury last week but failed to record a catch. I can’t blame him for not performing at the level we’ve come to expect from him right after being hurt, but he’ll need to have a big day against this Rams defense. Los Angeles has the third best run defense in the league by DVOA, and their secondary is allowing the fourth lowest average depth of target. They’ve also given up the sixth most yards after catch.

Well, Schultz has been very effective throughout his career at picking up yards after the catch; just last year he was sixth among tight ends in YAC despite having a lower average depth of target than the guys ahead of him. Cooper Rush will need to get the ball out in a hurry, as he has been doing this year, and that’ll result in a lot of quick shots to Schultz. If this offense has any designs on being effective on Sunday, they’ll need their franchise tagee to be at his best.

Tom: I’ve had one for defense and one for offense, so let’s go with special teams. Unfortunately, this is a worrisome situation, the replacement for injured long snapper Jake McQuaide. From practice reports, it looks like Matt Overton is in line to fill in this week.

NFL: Player Headshots 2021 Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Overton was signed to the practice squad along with Tucker Addington to give the team options. It seems like a no-brainer to pick Overton.

One will be elevated from the PS this week to allow roster flexibility, namely signing Will Grier to backup Rush now that Grier can no longer be elevated each week. Assuming it is Overton, it is important that he get things right from the start. The Cowboys have struggled scoring touchdowns and have relied on Brett Maher, who could have been the choice for key special teams player, to get points when things stall. They can’t afford bungled snaps and holds. The margin is too thin for them. Dallas was long blessed with L.P. Ladouceur and then saw McQuaide not miss a beat. They need that string of succession to continue.

David: Long snapper is definitely a position I’ll be watching closely on Sunday, and special teams will need to be special all around for a game I anticipate being fairly low in points scored. For my final key player I’m going to take the low hanging fruit and say Micah Parsons, because you can’t talk about key players and not mention this guy.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Personally, I’m ready to jump on the “Micah Parsons is better than Aaron Donald” bandwagon, but I understand others’ trepidation at doing so. Parsons is just a game-wrecker through and through. Last week, Parsons may have had his worst game as a pro and he still made a massive impact. He was a black hole of sorts, sucking the offensive line into him and creating opportunities for other pass rushers to get to the quarterback.

Parsons has a very real chance to have a huge game against a pretty underwhelming Rams offensive line, too. Matthew Stafford is tied with Joe Burrow as the second-most sacked quarterback in the league, behind just Carson Wentz. The Rams’ two starting tackles have given up a combined 30 pressures this year - for context, the entire Cowboys offensive line has given up just 34 - and the interior linemen haven’t been much better. Parsons can feast on this bunch from pretty much any spot Quinn puts him, and he’ll need to have a dominant day to ensure Stafford doesn’t have time to get set and throw.

If that happens, then I feel pretty good about making Stafford - who leads the league in picks this year after doing so last year as well - throw before he’s ready. That’s exactly what the Cowboys and their secondary want.

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