Play-action, edge control among Cowboys-Jets key battlegrounds on Sunday

One week into the 2023 regular season and the Dallas Cowboys find themselves on very different sides of the spectrum than their Week 2 opponent. After losing Aaron Rodgers for the season in Week 1, the vibe has changed in New York. Their excitement for the season has turned to determination and the ultra-talented Jets appear hellbent on proving they can win despite their loss at QB.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, are coming off the biggest blowout of the week. They’re riding high atop the power rankings and their biggest threat this week appears to be drinking their own Kool-Aid. Where both teams start resemble each other is in their overall talent on the field. Like Dallas, the Jets are supremely gifted on defense. They possess talent at all levels and have roster depth to back it up.

Led by Robert Salah, New York’s defense is essentially an even better version of the 49ers squad that bounced Dallas from the postseason two years in a row.

Coming from the San Francisco coaching tree, the resemblance is understandable for Salah’s team. He leans on Cover 2/4 often, spreading his linemen wide up front and leaning on his explosive LBs to fill in the gaps seemingly everywhere.

The ability of the Jets defense cannot be overstated and at the moment, appears to be the best Dallas will face this season. As such, it will require a patient gameplan and success in a few key matchups for the Cowboys to come out top.

The absence of Rodgers doesn’t suddenly make this game easy, and the Cowboys’ mental toughness will be put to the test as they welcome the Jets to their home opener in Arlington.

Key matchup No. 1: Play-action vs. Jets LBs

Sunday, September 10, 2023
Sunday, September 10, 2023

Dak Prescott has seen the film on what the Jets did to Josh Allen and it’s pretty safe to assume he’s adjusting accordingly.

New York played a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 4, stretching their defensive line out wide and temped runners with open gaps.

In coverage, they locked down with a mix of man and zone. They crashed to the ball and used their LBs a variety of ways. And it’s those LBs who may be key to some big plays through the air.

Quincy Williams and C.J. Mosley put on a LB clinic in Week 1. Williams, specifically, was dialed in, filling in gaps, exploding to the ball carriers, and sliding into zones coverages with shocking speed. Salah demands a lot from his LBs and they can’t afford to hesitate in their actions. This makes them great targets for play-action passing.

Run fakes inherently work because LBs are trained to play the run before the pass. Even when the run isn’t working, players instinctually respond to handoff motions, making play-action a great way to create separation down field.

The Bills used play-action against New York seven times on Monday night. With 10.2 yards/attempt, a 100% completion percentage and a 109 passer-rating, it was Allen’s most efficient method of attack.

Prescott used play-action passing in Week 1 as well. Against the Giants, he used play-action 10 times with modest success. He didn’t make any big plays, but he didn’t suffer any bad plays either.

With the Bills D-line playing wide, LBs tasked with filling big holes and covering vast territory, the stage is set for some big plays on the second level of the defense. That’s the good news.

The bad news is play-action passes take extra time to develop. Allen’s average time to throw was 2.81 seconds in play-action and while he went a cool 5-for-5 passing, he never even got a pass off on two of his dropbacks.

At the end of the day, the Jets got two sacks on Allen’s seven play-action attempts so there is certainly risk to go along with the reward.

The Cowboys don’t want to overuse play-action because they want to get the ball out as quickly as possible and not open themselves up for big plays against. But play-action is still a cheat code in the NFL and a great way to use the defense’s own aggressiveness against them.

Key matchup No. 2: Dallas EDGE vs multi-TE sets

Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys are loaded at the defensive end position. DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler and Sam Williams make up one of the best top-to-bottom units in the NFL.

Their mettle will be put to the test on Sunday because the Jets will be attacking them all day long. But rather than testing their pass-rush ability, New York will be testing their run-stopping fortitude.

The Jets are well aware of their own suspect pass-protection and the Cowboys’ deadly pass-rush. They know the key to victory is to slow the game down by running the ball early and often. And based on their Week 1 successes, that’s likely to come on the edge.

According to PFF play charting, the Jets ran 24 times from edge to edge (excluding QB scrambles). Six of those were to the left edge and five to the right edge. 133 of their recorded 166 yards came at either the left or right edge.

Lawrence, one of the best run stopping DEs in the game, is certainly up to the task. As is the surprisingly well-rounded Williams. Armstrong and Fowler, on the other hand, can be run-stopping wild cards.

It’s going to take prioritization from the entire DE room to stop the Jets’ explosive backs from turning the corner.

Breece Hall picked up where he left off last season and broke off a couple enormous runs against the Bills last week. He’ll be looking to again against Dallas on Sunday.

It doesn’t all fall on the Cowboys defensive ends to control the edge either. New York is expected to play heavy 13 personnel on Sunday. They rolled with three TE sets on 19 percent of their plays in Week 1 and figure to repeat that against Dallas on Sunday.

Extra TEs means the edge gets pushed wider. This puts extra pressure on linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks.

Even though Trevon Diggs looked strong against the run last week, look for the Jets to test his dedication to run-stopping, early. Outside run fits will be imperative to stop the New York ground game.


Key matchup No. 3: WR CeeDee Lamb vs NCB Michael Carter

Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect to Stephon Gillmore and Diggs, the Jets have two of the best boundary CBs in the NFL. They can play a variety of coverages with elite execution. Salah’s defense leans on them heavily and they produce consistently.

They will give up the occasional slant here and there, but the Jets mix in enough zone drops from their LBs and even DL, to make those slants dangerous. All in all, their boundary CBs are top-shelf and not anyone the Cowboys want to target.

Since the game is expected to be a low scoring affair, it’s unlikely Dallas will press much on offense. They will likely be patient and try to take what’s given to them. The weakness in the armor is likely at nickel CB.

Michael Carter isn’t a weakness per say, but on a team full of strengths, the guy facing the Cowboys WR1 gets to be the target by default.

Whether Brandin Cooks plays or not on Sunday (his status is in doubt), Lamb is the primary slot WR when Dallas goes 11 personnel.

The Jets don’t travel their CBs so Dallas will likely use their outside WRs, Michael Gallup and Jalen Tolbert/Cooks, as space clearers for Lamb and the Cowboys TEs to work.

Fans are probably down on the Cowboys TE group after their three drops in Week 1, but no one expects the drops to continue, and New York should offer plenty of opportunities for the unit to bounce back as pass-catchers.

Lamb and the TEs should be the Cowboys’ primary pass-catching weapons in Week 2 and it will be up to Carter to keep the damage minimal.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire