There was a time when Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans were in-state rivals. That’s because the Titans used to be the Houston Oilers. The Oilers moved in 1997, so now the Cowboys will hop, skip, and jump over Arkansas to Tennessee to play the Titans on Thursday night.
It will be the first-ever Cowboys game shown on Amazon Prime as we enjoy more than just free shipping from the world’s largest online retail service. The last time the Cowboys played the Titans was in Amari Cooper's debut as a Cowboy, a game Dallas lost. It was a low point in the 2018 season as they were 3-5, but they would go on to win their next five games and eventually earn a trip to the playoffs. The last time they traveled to Tennessee was in 2014 when Rolando McClain made that incredible one-handed interception. Similar to 2018, the Cowboys followed that game with five-straight wins on their way to the playoffs.
With the Titans' all-important game happening next week in the finale, we are not sure if and how much of the starters we’ll see from Mike Vrabel’s team. Obviously, that could change how this game goes, but regardless, here are five things to watch when these two former in-state rivals square off.
1. Whatchu talk’n ‘bout Willis?
With just one sack over their last three games, the Cowboys' pass rush has come under fire. The lack of pressure has also allowed teams to sustain drives and rack up the yards on this once-feared Dallas defense. Many are worried that something has changed, and we offered up some theories earlier this week, but one person who is not worried is Cowboys’ head coach Mike McCarthy.
The Cowboys have ONE sack over their last three games and they've given up two-straight 300-yard passing games after having NONE all year.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 27, 2022
Mike McCarthy isn't worried about his pass rush, are you? Is this confidence or stupidity? pic.twitter.com/kAGkOgVyeR
The team will face Titans’ third-round rookie QB Malik Willis on Thursday, who is off to a rocky start. He’s 31/61 for 276 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions on the season. Last week, he ran the ball seven times for 43 yards and found the end zone once. While Willis doesn’t pose much of a threat in the passing game, his mobility could keep the Cowboys' defense off-kilter. The Cowboys need to re-establish some trust as we inch closer to the playoffs, but if they allow a subpar quarterback like Willis to cook, that’s not going to bring out the good feels.
2. To run or not to run, that is the question
The Titans have the second-best run defense in the league as they allow just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. The Cowboys rushing attack has hit a little bit of a road bump recently as neither Ezekiel Elliott nor Tony Pollard has rushed for five yards per carry in each of the last three games. Running the ball against the typical Titans' defense would be no easy task.
Conversely, the Titans' pass defense is vulnerable. They have surrendered almost 4,200 passing yards this season which is the second-worst in the league. The strengths and weakness of Tennessee’s defense would lead us to believe that the Cowboys will attack them through the air, but will they?
McCarthy is adamant about keeping a balance and it shows through their run/pass selection as of late, however, the Cowboys' passing attack is tough to stop since Dak Prescott’s return. Dallas is ranked eighth overall in passing yards this season and that’s with Cooper Rush playing five games. Will the Cowboys stubbornly try to establish the run or will they play to their strengths and let Dak fire away?
3. Bland watch
The fifth-round pick from Fresno State is having a great rookie season. He is second in the league in interceptions. He is one pick away from the NFL leaders, Chauncy Gardner-Johnson, and fellow rookie Tariq Woolen. Bland didn’t make his first NFL start until Week 10 when he took over slot corner duties for the injured Jourdan Lewis, but he’s come on strong as of late. The rookie has had four interceptions over his last four games.
With a mistake-prone rookie QB playing for the Titans, the opportunity is there for Bland to keep those interceptions coming. And if he does, you can’t help wondering if his name would be thrown into the ring as a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year. If that happened, it would make history as no team has ever had back-to-back defensive rookie of the year winners.
4. A little fine-tuning wouldn’t hurt
If the Titans do in fact play their backups to more cautiously prepare for the Jacksonville Jaguars the following week, the hope is the Cowboys can put this game away early. If that happens, it would be great to see the Cowboys use the rest of the game to work out some kinks. Maybe Dak targets T.Y. Hilton a little more to build chemistry? And what about throwing some reserves of their own out there? A game script of no consequence would be a perfect time to sit Tyron Smith and get Josh Ball some reps.
How about turning loose the depth in the secondary? Nahshon Wright looked decent in his debut as a starter last week; can he build on that with another game? Can they sit Trevon Diggs and give Kelvin Joseph another chance? What about other CB journeymen like Mackensie Alexander and Trayvon Mullen? Will they ever promote Takk McKinley from the practice squad?
After three-straight games decided on the final possession, it would be nice to get one with a little breathing room and use it as an opportunity to give some other guys a chance.
5. Arctic Cowboys
For the first time ever, the Cowboys will be wearing their white color rush uniforms with their new white helmets. It’s similar to what they’ve worn before with their all-white color rush jerseys, only this time they will wear a white helmet rather than their standard silver helmet. This uniform combo is appropriately named “Arctic Cowboys,” and I’m not going to lie, this might end up being one of my new favorites.
I have a feeling that Thursday's new helmet/uniform combo is going to be one of my favorites. pic.twitter.com/ZvS2ZoPHhT— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 28, 2022
Which ones are your favorite?