“We’re on to Cincinnati.”
Nobody on the Cowboys actually said it, but that had to be the resounding feeling at The Star after a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Sunday against the Buccaneers. In addition to losing 19-3 on national television, Dallas lost two starters on offense (Dak Prescott, Connor McGovern) and one on defense plus a role player (Jayron Kearse, Tarell Basham) for at least this week’s game against the Bengals.
Coincidentally, the Cowboys didn’t have Prescott the last time these two teams played each other either. That game came during the end of the 2020 season and featured Andy Dalton throwing two touchdowns to beat his former team and ultimately spark a three-game winning streak for the Cowboys.
Things will be different this time, though. For Dallas, Dalton is no longer around; Cooper Rush, who won his only career start thus far last year in Minnesota, will be under center. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is a significantly better team than they were in 2020.
The Bengals limped to a 4-11-1 finish in 2020, which saw rookie quarterback Joe Burrow miss the final six games of the year with an ACL tear. That allowed the Bengals to net Burrow’s former receiver at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase, in the first round of the draft. The chemistry between Burrow and Chase helped spark the offense, and Cincinnati rode a magical wave all the way to the Super Bowl last year before losing to the Rams.
Some argued that the Bengals’ 2021 run was an illusion, more smoke and mirrors than the start of something special. In fact, the Bengals entered their bye week last year at 5-4 and in serious danger of missing the playoffs. But an offensive explosion helped them win five of their final eight games. That explosion included Burrow leading the league in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) by a significant margin and being second in expected points added (EPA) per play over that stretch, two factors that seem unlikely to repeat in 2022.
There was also the fact that the Bengals’ three division rivals experienced significant regression: only one team had more players on the injured reserve last year than the Ravens; then-Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield played the majority of the season with a partially torn labrum; and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger kept playing despite his body having retired several years ago.
Those who subscribed to these factors as evidence that the Bengals were a prime candidate for regression this year had to have felt good this past weekend. Cincinnati lost to Pittsburgh in overtime, with Burrow turning the ball over five times and his offensive line - which Cincinnati spent a lot of money to beef up this offseason - giving up seven sacks.
Now, Burrow and this offense will have to face a Cowboys defense that just made life really hard for Tom Brady throwing the ball. Micah Parsons leads all defenders in pass rush win rate by a pretty comfortable margin, and the Cowboys as a whole are sixth in the metric. The defense recorded one takeaway against Tampa Bay, and this same group led the league in takeaways last year and should be licking their chops watching the Bengals’ film from this past week.
But the defense isn’t the concern for these Cowboys, even if signal-caller Kearse won’t be out there. The question on everyone’s mind is how this team can possibly win any game without scoring points. They only scored three points when Prescott was in there, so how are they supposed to score at all with Rush playing a full game?
The answer is simple, and it’s one the Cowboys have built their entire offensive identity (to a fault) around this offseason: run the ball. To their credit, the offense actually ran the ball very well last week against a very stout defensive front. Ezekiel Elliott was averaging over five yards a carry and very much looked like his former self. The problem is that Elliott only carried the ball 10 times; penalties, sacks, and poorly executed passing plays led to less opportunities for Elliott and Tony Pollard to really have an impact.
Coming into this game, the Bengals rank third in run stop win rate and fifth in run defense DVOA; the Steelers averaged just 3.4 yards per carry against them. However, this is misleading as it pertains to the Cowboys’ chances of success on the ground this week. For starters, Steelers bellcow running back Najee Harris left the game early with an injury.
More importantly, though, is the fact that the Bengals’ run defense is strongest in the middle. Defensive tackles D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill are two big, strong space eaters against the run. For some reason, Pittsburgh decided to run up the middle on 65% of their run plays, the fifth highest figure in the NFL this week. The Steelers hardly ran it outside the tackles but when they did, they had a significantly higher success rate.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, had a balanced rushing attack in terms of which directions they ran the ball. They had success running inside, but ran nearly as many plays to the edges and also had a higher success rate there. Factor in that Dallas currently leads the league in run block win rate - even Matt Farniok is second among all guards in individual run block win rate - and you start to see how this team could get their offensive groove back against Cincinnati.
Of course, the biggest question is whether or not things will fall apart when the Cowboys have to throw the ball. That’s fair, but keep in mind that this coaching staff has won with Rush starting under center and they did so with a rushing attack that went outside to the edges on 65% of their run plays.
That hardly guarantees anything, and the Cowboys will be underdogs in this game for very good reason. But the idea that this game is unwinnable for Dallas is simply not true. It would take a lot of things to go right for them just a week after nearly everything went wrong, but there’s a reason “any given Sunday” is a phrase. In fact, the Cowboys match up pretty well with this Bengals team on paper. It’ll be on the players and coaches to take it from the paper to the field come Sunday.