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Pregame Shuffle: Cowboys vs. Texans (Week 14)

It’s rivalry week for the Cowboys! Well, sort of.

Houston Texans v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Usually when you think of great rivalries, a lot of them tend to occur within state lines. That’s never really been true for the Cowboys and Texans. Whether it’s due to being in completely different conferences or the fact that the Texans formed as a franchise during one of the bleakest periods of Cowboys football, it’s just never been a real rivalry.

That said, the Cowboys take on the Texans this week in a battle between the two Texas teams. If there’s any sort of rivalry here, it’s the one that exists between head coaches Mike McCarthy and Lovie Smith, something McCarthy alluded to in his press conference on Wednesday.

Smith was the head coach of the Chicago Bears for nine years, and he had plenty of clashes with McCarthy’s Packers. In fact, McCarthy’s first year in Green Bay saw Smith’s Bears win their second consecutive division title and reach the Super Bowl. Smith’s Bears didn’t win the NFC North again until 2010, and that team was knocked out of the playoffs by McCarthy’s Packers, who won the Super Bowl that year. McCarthy, throughout his career, is 11-5 against Smith all-time, including the postseason.

Now, with both head coaches in Texas, McCarthy is in a good spot to earn win number 12. The Texans have been an aggressively bad team lately, and are in the midst of a very, very thorough rebuild. Smith was the defensive coordinator for this team last year, when Houston went 4-13, and Smith was promoted to head coach when the Texans fired David Culley after just one year on the job.

So far, Smith hasn’t fared any better, and Houston is 1-10-1. They benched second-year quarterback Davis Mills two weeks ago, but are apparently pivoting back to Mills this week. It likely won’t make a difference, as the Texans offense was dead last in offensive DVOA before his benching and remains there now.

Led by offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the Texans offense has managed to score 21 points only once all year. That was the first week of October, and they lost the game anyway. Simply put, they’ve been miserable all year. They’re second to last in both yards per play and points and are third in turnovers.

Mills showed some flashes in his rookie year, but he’s taken a big step back this year. He’s thrown two less touchdowns than Dak Prescott despite playing in three more games; he’s also thrown 11 interceptions, second in the league behind Matt Ryan.

The biggest storyline for Mills this year has been how poorly he handles pressure. He’s ninth in sacks taken and sixth in pressure rate playing behind an offensive line that’s struggled plenty. When given a clean pocket, Mills is completing over two thirds of his passes, but that figure drops to 50.5% when pressured. Consider it bad luck for him then that Mills makes his return to the starting lineup against a defense, headlined by Micah Parsons, that leads the league in both pressures and sacks.

The lone bright spot for the Texans on offense this year has been rookie running back Dameon Pierce, who quickly emerged as the bell-cow in this run heavy offense. He’s eighth in the league in rushing yards and 13th in rushing yards over expectation, both strong marks for a rookie. But the Texans defense isn’t anywhere near good enough to win with an offense that is almost solely powered by the run game.

To that point, Smith is still calling plays as the head coach, and he’s still running the Tampa 2 defense that he’s run his whole career. It’s not, however, going as well as it did when Smith was in Chicago. Houston is 26th in defensive DVOA, giving up the eighth most yards per play, and in general have struggled to stop much of anything.

The secondary has had their moments, but their youth and inexperience makes itself evident against good teams. Cornerback Derek Stingley and safety Jalen Pitre, both rookies, have had moments that suggest the future is bright in Houston, but the future is very much not right now.

The Texans’ biggest defensive weakness has been in run support, where they rank 28th in run defense DVOA. They’re allowing the fifth most yards per carry this year, and they’re dealing with a lot of injuries along the defensive line right now to boot. Dallas, of course, has been running the ball at an elite level right now and rank third in rushing DVOA.

No matter how you slice it, this is a very lopsided matchup. The Texans have done very little to pretend they’re interested in winning games right now, and that’s translated to on-field results. The only games they’ve not lost were a tie against the Colts and a surprise win against the Jaguars, two division wins from a very weak division. They’ve generally been frisky in the first half but often fail to keep it going for very long.

Simply put, the Cowboys should win this one easily. If they lose, it’ll be an embarrassment of epic proportions. This is the ultimate test of whether the team can lock in and focus on their weekly opponent instead of looking ahead on the schedule. If they can do that, then the Cowboys should win in a landslide.

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