The Dallas Cowboys will be back in action on Sunday after their bye week as they host the Los Angeles Rams. It’s the fourth time in five years that these teams have faced off, with each of them winning twice in that span. The Rams were thought to be in “rebuild mode” after dumping a lot of their big-name players, but they have started the season 3-4 as they are finding ways to win football games.
The Cowboys are looking for an L.A. sweep after beating the Chargers a couple of weeks ago. To do that they’ll have to beat a Rams team that has been in every game they’ve played this season. Here are five things to watch for when the Cowboys host the Rams on Sunday.
1. STIFLING STAFFORD
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is all right. He’s got a big arm and is capable of making some big plays, but he’s become a little Jeckyl and Hyde-ish at this point in his career as he can be a little mistake-prone. He’s made a total of 48 bad passes this year, which just so happens to lead the NFL. And he’s even worse under duress, but who isn’t, right? Stafford though, ranks near the bottom of the league in most passing metrics when under pressure (completion %, passer rating, etc). The key to stopping this Rams’ offense is getting in the mug of Stafford.
As luck would have it, creating pressure is the Cowboys’ forte. They are the best in the NFL with a pressure rate of 45.9%. They also have a 35.7% blitz rate which is seventh-most in the league. Whether it’s a four-man rush or bringing extra guys, the Cowboys’ defense brings the heat, and this will be their bread and butter in stifling the Rams’ passing attack. Of course, to do that, they’ll need to earn those pass-rush reps, and that means stopping the run, which brings us to point #2.
2. RAMIFICATIONS OF A SHAKY RUN DEFENSE
If you closed your eyes and envisioned a Rams upset on Sunday, there’s a good chance the Cowboys' defense had a tough time stopping the run. After all, to beat Dallas, you have to run wild on them as Arizona did in Week 3 (222 yards rushing) and San Francisco did in Week 5 (170 yards). The Cowboys have also been very good against the run at times as they have allowed 65 or fewer yards rushing in half of their games this year. Which Cowboys run defense will we see on Sunday?
The Rams' running attack has undergone a lot of change, first trading away Cam Akers in favor of second-year RB Kyren Williams. Unfortunately, Williams landed on IR with an ankle injury and the Rams are employing a two-headed rushing attack consisting of Darrell Henderson Jr. and Royce Freeman. Regardless of who’s running the ball, the Rams find ways to make it work. They are top 10 in rushing efficiency at 4.3 yards per carry. When L.A. can get the ground game rolling, they are hard to beat. They are 3-1 this season when they reach 90 yards and 0-3 when they don’t. They have rushed for over 130 yards in three of their last four games. They are an all-hands-on-deck blocking team and if they can create some lanes, it could be taxing on this Cowboys defense.
3. GOTTA CATCH’EM ALL
Puka Nacua may sound like the latest Pokémon creature, but he’s not. Instead, he’s the newest receiving craze in the NFL. This fifth-rounder is dazzling the league as this rookie’s special power is catching everything thrown in his direction. He leads the NFL in targets with 82. He leads the NFL in catches with 58. Nacua just tears up the middle of the field in zone coverage and has become Stafford’s new BFF. And when he gets the ball in his hands, he gets up and goes. He’s a chains-mover, yards after catch-getter, and sideline top-tapper. Basically, the guy does it all in the receiving game.
The Cowboys have done a great job against the pass this year, ranking third-best with just an average of 177 yards allowed, but that’s not to say they aren’t susceptible to surrendering big plays (cough, Garrett Wilson, cough). Keeping Nacua from wreaking havoc will be crucial in this one.
4. A LITTLE RUSHING SUCCESS WOULD BE NICE
The Cowboys' ability to run the ball has recently become a problem. They started the year with four straight games with over 120 yards rushing, but they struggled during their California road trip with only 57 yards against the 49ers and 96 yards against the Chargers (and most of that was from Dak Prescott).
The team is hoping to have better luck against their third-straight California opponent as the Rams are 20th in the league in rushing yards allowed. With an extra week to heal up, the offensive line should be able to give it their best go, that is unless Tyron Smith is unable to go after suffering a stinger on Thursday. Hopefully, at some point, this unit can start playing better and yield some success in the running game. It’s an area that absolutely must get better if the Cowboys are going to be able to move the ball on offense.
5. SAVE YOUR TIMEOUTS
The last time we saw the Cowboys, they had to burn three timeouts (two in the second half) because they weren’t ready as the play clock ran down. While not having those timeouts didn’t end up hurting them, those types of decisions can be costly and Rams’ fans can tell you firsthand. Last week, the Rams made a critical fourth-down stop against the Steelers, however, the officials grossly mis-spotted the ball, giving Pittsburgh a first down and allowing them to run out the clock. Had Rams’ head coach Sean McVay had a timeout left, he would’ve been able to challenge the spot, and the spot would’ve been changed and give the Rams a chance to tie or win the game with just over two minutes left.
It might not be a timeout that shakes things up in this one but don’t be shocked if a questionable coaching decision ends up being a back-breaker for someone.