The last few weeks have shown everyone the NFL is a not-for-long league. The season seemed over for the Dallas Cowboys after a 42-10 beatdown by the San Francisco 49ers put them two games back in their division and with the fourth-best record in the NFC. Two weeks later, the Philadelphia Eagles lost a game, the Detroit Lions got blown out, and the 49ers lost two straight. The Cowboys are coming off a bye week at 4-2, and the NFC seems wide open.
Dallas is back home playing one of the nemeses of the Dak Prescott era, the Los Angeles Rams. This isn’t the Super Bowl contender Rams from a few years back. However, they still have an elite play-caller in Sean McVay, the best defensive player of this generation, Aaron Donald, one of the best receivers in the game in Cooper Kupp, and quarterback Matt Stafford.
The Cowboys might be more talented overall, but this matchup is no walk in the park. Los Angeles will scheme a great game plan for Dallas, and the top players on the Rams will show up big time with the spotlight of the Cowboys shining on the game. Here is a look at some of what Dallas needs to do and stop Los Angeles from doing to get a victory in Week 8.
How they win: Contain the short passing game
The Rams’ playcaller, McVay, doesn’t have a team with the same capabilities as the ones that he went to the Super Bowl with. Like other elite play callers, he knows not all of his playbook will work with his current roster. In the same way Mike McCarthy wants to play to the Cowboys strength, their defense, McVay will try to ease the burden on his defense with his offensive game plan.
Los Angeles doesn’t have the offensive line or the stable of running backs to just hand the ball off all game. The team is going to lean on the abilities of Kupp, Puka Nacua, and Stafford. They will attempt to throw first down passes to make second and third down manageable. If the Rams can get to 2nd-and-5 (or less) often, it opens up the run game, and allows the team to take shots deep because 3rd-and-5 is still manageable.
The Cowboys top asset is their pass rush. Most games they have to earn it by stopping the run, but this week it will be about controlling passes on first down so Stafford has to convert 3rd-and-long.
He isn’t a mobile quarterback, so the Dallas rush can meet at a spot and ideally create some turnover possibilities. It all starts with stopping the short passing game on first down.
How to lose: Don't get off to a slow start.
In their two losses this season, the Cowboys offense had early three-and-out drives, and against the 49ers they couldn’t keep their offense on the field at all. Eventually the great defense in Dallas wore down and was able to be exploited.
The Arizona Cardinals had an early 10-0 lead. San Francisco started off even better, going up 14-0 with a play differential of 24-to-10.
Los Angeles’s hope to beat Dallas is to dictate the type of game it is. They need to control the clock on offense, limit the possessions of the Cowboys and not allow Prescott and the weapons he has an offense to wear down the Rams defense with lengthy drives. The best way for the Rams to make this happen is to get up on the scoreboard early and make Dallas play catch up.
If the Cowboys can get up early, they can make Los Angeles have to pass in order to catch up, and the Rams don’t have the offensive line or mobility at QB to stand against the Cowboys ferocious pass rush.
How to win: Big game from the defensive tackles
Going into the season, the defense of the Cowboys was led by their excellent, and deep rotation of edge rushers and maybe the best secondary in the league with three top corners and three starter-quality safeties. The play of the Dallas starting defensive tackles have been underrated since Jonathan Hankins joined them last year.
Osa Odighizuwa had a major jump from his rookie season to last year, and has been even more superb this season. Pro Football Focus has him ranked at 89.7. His pass rush grade is 81.8, which most would expect to be high given his skills, but his run defense grade of 81.6 shows his growth as an overall player. Three sacks, 11 stops, 12 hurries, and 18 total pressures are good numbers, but he needs to completely dominate in games like the one on Sunday.
The Rams don’t have the OL to stop him, and Odighizuwa could cement himself as one of the game’s top interior playmakers if he can show that he can wreck a game when he has an opponent over matched.
Hankins has been the same player for his entire double-digit year career. He will hold up to double teams and allow his fellow defenders to make plays. He is the second most influential run defender on the team with -51.39 net yards over average. He is only behind Leighton Vander Esch and with the latter out, the team will need Hankins to continue his great play against the Rams to free up Damone Clark and Markquese Bell to make plays in the run game.
The player who should see a jump in his production in this game is rookie Mazi Smith.
Smith should be rested coming off the bye week, and his raw athleticism and power should lead him to make some plays against the run and in pass-rush situations against a poor interior offensive line. This could be a show out game inside, and if Dallas was to show an ability to take the defense to another level, it would come from interior playmaking. The Cowboys edge rush is what opponents will game plan to stop, the interior is going to need to be a difference maker in a match up with an offensive mastermind like McVay.
How to lose: Allow the Rams to make more big plays
The Rams set up big plays on offense and land them in a way that the Cowboys haven’t been able to thus far. Los Angeles is top five so far in big plays with 17, the Cowboys aren’t even in the top 20. The talent is there for Dallas — CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Tony Pollard have all been big play machines in their careers — but the new system doesn’t seem take many chances in the passing game and the run game hasn’t hit big plays at all.
With Kyren Williams out the Rams have both new rookie sensation Nacua plus Kupp, but not much else, in terms of playmakers. McVay knows how to hit the big plays with how he sets up his match ups though, and this lets them get big plays out of players like Tutu Atwell and Van Jefferson.
Big plays aren’t just an offensive stat though, and for Dallas, their defense makes the big plays for their team. Dallas is tied for fourth in forced turnovers with 12, even though they have played one less game than the top two teams. The Rams don’t get many turnovers, they have one more total turnover than the Cowboys have defensive touchdowns.
The game could come down to which team hits more of their big-play opportunities when the opponent gives them a chance. Whether it is missing a pass on a well set up screen pass, overthrowing a deep ball, or dropping an interception, the team that executes on big plays will win this game.