In their Week 7 win over Detroit, quarterback Dak Prescott was back in the saddle for the Dallas Cowboys, attempting to throw off some rust from not playing since Week 1. From the kickoff of that game to his return in Week 7, Dallas has morphed from an offensive team led by Prescott’s passing attack to a defensive juggernaut carrying a middle-of-the-pack offense.
The game against the Lions was a perfect example. Prescott only had to throw for 207 yards, the team had a 10-6 lead going into the fourth quarter. The defense ended up causing four turnovers in the fourth quarter and setting up the offense for their final 14 points.
The Chicago Bears shocked many on Monday by destroying the New England Patriots, 33-14, in Gillette Stadium. Justin Fields struggled passing the ball, in typical fashion for young QBs facing a Bill Belichick defense. Fields threw 21 times, completing just13 receptions for only 179 yards. The part nobody predicted was how the Bears ran all over the Patriots to the tune of almost 250 yards with two players averaging over five yards per carry.
How do the Cowboys establish momentum heading into the bye? Can Chicago build from Monday night and win their second straight game on the road? Here are the keys to victory for the early Sunday contest.
Linebacker Roquan Smith
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Micah Parsons might be the best defensive player in football, but he has only played 90 snaps at the linebacker position this season. He is basically a full-time edge rusher and that opens up the question, who is the best linebacker in the NFL? The answer is likely Smith.
Smith is a tackling machine; he has never had less than 100 tackles in a season and ended last year top five in tackles with 163. The two time All-Pro leads the league in tackles so far this year with 78 already, four being for a loss. He impacts the game elsewhere as well with two interceptions, three pass defenses, and 2.5 sacks.
The Cowboys want to run the ball and use the play-action passing game to attack the Bears defense and they will need a plan to deal with Smith in both areas. If Dallas doesn’t get a blocker on him, he will ruin any attempts to run consistently and in the passing game he is excellent in coverage and as a rusher.
Stopping the run
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The Cowboys made it known before the season started they will be a running team. Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones said it, Head Coach Mike McCarthy has made multiple comments about having 30 rush attempts a game, and once Prescott went down with a thumb injury it became an absolute necessity.
Dallas is a middle-of-the-pack rushing team, ranking 13th in rushing yards and 19th in yards per carry. How much did Prescott being injured impact how defenses played the run against them? If the Cowboys had their starting QB would that open up more running lanes for Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott and change the team rankings overall.
The Bears don’t have those questions, they are second in total rush yards and fifth in yards per carry. Unlike Dallas, the Bears offense is completely reliant on the run game. Whether it is David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, or even QB Justin Fields, the Cowboys will have to stop all three from wearing down the defense with long drives.
The team that can run efficiently and control the flow of the contest through running the ball will give themselves the best chance of winning the game.
Comfortable or uncomfortable point differential
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Dallas is at home, not having to travel like the Bears did coming from New England. Chicago is also on a short week after playing Monday night, and they honestly just aren’t as talented a team as the Cowboys. Dallas is a 9.5-point favorite for a reason.
The best chance for the Bears is to fight to keep the game close, allow them to play their style of game, conservative, run heavy, leaning on the defense and then try to steal a game close with a late field goal. Cairo Santos is an elite kicker who hasn’t missed this season, including going 4/4 from field goals over 50 yards. Let Chicago hang around and he could be a difference maker in the end.
All teams want to get ahead and make their opponent one dimensional, but in this contest it’s really an important factor. Fields, whether it’s the lack of offensive line, weapons, or just him, hasn’t shown the ability to consistently throw the ball to lead to a victory. If the Cowboys get ahead by double digits, it not only makes the Bears a passing offense, but it unleashes the best pass rush in the league to go get pressures and takeaways.
How close the game is allowed to be late will be a key to who wins this game. Dallas is the favorite, but if Chicago gets a chance at a last second field goal, they could pull out a win.