After last week, there is little reason to be confident in the Dallas Cowboys. But the Bengals, like any other team in the league, still have weaknesses. If the stars align and the coaching staff is able to exploit these holes, there is a chance that the Cowboys stay competitive in this matchup. This would not only require taking advantage of the Bengals’ weaknesses but also covering up their own deficiencies that have become increasingly clear after week one.
So, with that said, what are a few of these uneven matchups worth keeping an eye on?
3 uneven matchups in the Cowboys-Bengals game
Cooper Rush vs. the Bengals' secondary
It is easy to see the 23 points scored by the Steelers against the Bengals last week and assume that Cincinnati had a weak defensive showing against Mitch Trubisky. But this was not the case. Because with five turnovers forced, it was almost entirely the Pittsburgh defense that won them the game. In fact, here are the yards gained on the Steelers' scoring drives:
- 0 yards: Interception return for TD
- 32 yards: FG
- 59 yards: TD
- 15 yards: FG
- 45 yards: FG
There were only three legitimate scoring drives totaling 13 points from the Steelers last Sunday. The Bengals' defense held their own, specifically their secondary.
And if you accept the premise that Cooper Rush is not better than Mitch Trubisky, Dallas might be in trouble. Because even in the win, Tribusky only put up 194 yards with a 55% completion percentage and one touchdown, finishing with a passer rating of 78.2.
Eli Apple and former Cowboys CB Chidobe Awuzie were the two highest-graded secondary defenders for the Bengals last week, and Von Bell, Mike Hilton, and Jessie Bates all put up solid games. This led them to being the #1 ranked team by PFF coverage grade, and they were top ten by EPA per play allowed against the pass in week one.
For an offense that only put up three points last week and is now being led by Cooper Rush, this is not an ideal matchup to start out with. It is going to be more difficult than expected to pass on the Bengals. And don’t let the memories of the last Super Bowl fool you, this is a formidable secondary. It is likely going to be tough sledding for Rush in this one.
Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence vs. Jonah Williams and La’el Collins
The Bengals made their best attempt to improve their offensive line after Joe Burrow had to overcome constant pressure throughout Cincinnati’s 2021 playoff run. But it is nearly impossible to rebuild an entire front five in one offseason. And while the interior performed well in week one, the two tackles for the Bengals struggled against the Steelers.
Granted, the Pittsburgh defensive line is a brutal first test for a new-look offensive line. But two out of the three lowest graded players, per PFF, among their front five, were La’el Collins and Jonah Williams, the two tackles. Surrendering a combined eight QB pressures, five QB hurries, and two sacks, they are vulnerable to a pass rush off the edge.
Jonah Williams, the left tackle, particularly struggled. With a pass-blocking efficiency grade of 93.1, only 13 offensive linemen of the 139 who started last week finished with a worse grade. To put that number into perspective, even Terence Steele posted a 97.8 pass-blocking efficiency grade against the Bucs.
Now, similar to Brady, Burrow is decent at making a quick read and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. With the 11th fastest time to throw last year, he was only .37 seconds slower than the league leader, Ben Roethlisberger. But no QB was sacked more than Burrow last season. If Parsons or Lawrence can get home, which they assuredly will be able to do against a weak tackle rotation, they should be able to bring him to the ground.
D.J. Reader and Logan Wilson vs. Matt Farniok and Tyler Biadasz
With the 19th highest run blocking grade in week one, the Cowboys rushing attack was definitely not their biggest weakness. However, the Cowboys’ three starting interior offensive linemen, including perennial All-Pro Zack Martin, were the three lowest graded Dallas linemen last week by run blocking.
The issue is that the two best Cincinnati run defenders last week were Logan Ryan (LB) and D.J. Reader (DT). So, if the Bengals use these two correctly, they will be able to close up the inside rushes and force Zeke outside. And at this stage in his career, Elliott is better served using his power up the gut than relying on his speed to beat the edge defenders.
Now, one thing to monitor is the fact that Wilson actually struggled against the run last season, so this might be an issue of a one-week sample. Reader was a 93rd percentile defender against the run last year, so last week’s performance was likely not an outlier.
For proof, Najee Harris, who plays with a similar rushing style as Elliott, finished with 10 attempts for 23 yards and two receptions for three yards. The Bengals effectively shut him down until he was forced out of the game with an injury. So don't be surprised if Cincinnati decides to stop the only offensive weapon the Cowboys had last week, and they should be able to do so easily.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their list of exploitable weaknesses is extensive and seems to grow by the day. For Dallas to have a real shot in this matchup, McCarthy is going to have to flip the script and use their strengths to attack the Bengals' holes. It is not an ideal situation, and fans shouldn’t count on it, but the path is there.