The Dallas Cowboys (4-5) return to the scene of the crime Sunday, as they face the Atlanta Falcons (4-5) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the site of Adrian Clayborn’s infamous six-sack performance that essentially ruined the Cowboys’ 2017 season.
At the moment, the Cowboys and Falcons are teams headed in different directions. The Cowboys are coming off a much-needed win over the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles while the Falcons are reeling after a disappointing loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Both teams need a win, but only one can leave the stadium victorious. With that in mind, let’s make a few bold predictions for the game.
Offensive line only gives up one sack
A year after the Cowboys offensive line had its worst performance since Tyron Smith was drafted, the unit appears primed to make amends.
The offensive line is coming off its best performance of the season considering the competition. The unit paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott’s 151 rushing yards and did a good job of giving Prescott enough time to throw against a ferocious front.
The Falcons front is a considerable step down from Philadelphia’s front four, and, in theory, the Dallas offensive line should be able to handle itself well Sunday, as the Falcons defensive line ranks 29th in adjusted line yards allowed and 27th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders.
After missing last year’s meeting, Smith will be in the lineup to protect Prescott’s blindside, and he gets a juicy matchup against Takkarist McKinley, who flashes playmaking traits but struggles mightily on a snap-to-snap basis. Smith is coming off a dominant performance against the Eagles where he shut down Brandon Graham and Michael Bennett consistently.
Opposite of Smith, La’el Collins will have an interesting matchup against Vic Beasley, who has failed to replicate his 15.5-sack season from a couple of years ago. Collins isn’t playing at a high level right now, but he is playing well enough to stymie Beasley, who has barely been a starting-caliber edge defender this season. As long as Collins slows Beasley’s speed rush, he shouldn’t have many problems Sunday.
At left guard, the Cowboys could bring Connor Williams back into the starting lineup after knee surgery caused him to miss last week, or the team could opt to start Xavier Su’a-Filo against Atlanta. Even though Williams is the better talent, it may be smart for Dallas to sit the rookie one more week to make sure he’s 100 percent recovered from his knee surgery. If Williams plays compromised, it could lead to him developing bad habits as he compensates for the injury – something that should be avoided at all costs.
Joe Looney continues to perform admirably in the absence of perennial All-Pro Travis Frederick. His performance against Philadelphia wasn’t his best, but it was still a solid outing where Looney had some key blocks on some of Elliott’s biggest runs.
At right guard, Zack Martin continues to show why he is one of the toughest players in the NFL as he battles through an MCL injury. There was a huge drop off in the offensive line’s performance when Martin missed time during the Philadelphia game, so it’s incredibly important that Martin plays, even if he’s not 100 percent, Sunday.
No matter who starts at left guard, the Cowboys interior offensive line will be pitted against an above-average group of defensive tackles. Grady Jarrett is the only defensive lineman on the Falcons roster who has game-wrecking ability, as the 6-foot, 305-pounder is one of the most effective defensive tackles in football. Jarrett is a spark plug in the middle of Atlanta’s defense, and he leverages his incredible quickness to get upfield and penetrate on a regular basis.
Next to Jarrett, Atlanta has former Cowboy Jack Crawford, who has some pass rush ability but shouldn’t give Dallas much trouble. The Falcons also rotate another former Cowboy, Terrell McClain, at defensive tackle, but he’s been largely disappointing for Atlanta this season. Deadrin Senat is the best reserve the Falcons have on the defensive line, and Senat could make life a tad difficult in the inside running game.
As long as they are mindful of where Jarrett lines up and don’t allow him to be single blocked by Su’a-Filo or Williams in pass protection, the Cowboys should be able to hold Atlanta’s interior defenders in check.
On paper, the Cowboys offensive line has a big advantage over the Falcons front, and it will be key to Dallas’ winning chances that they play like it. A year after Prescott was running for his life and constantly being harassed in the pocket, don’t be surprised if the Falcons barely lay a hand on him Sunday.
Amari Cooper has 100+ yards and two touchdowns
Amari Cooper has played phenomenally for the Cowboys in the two games he’s been with the team, but he’s yet to have a dominant, break out performance. The Alabama product has yet to go over 100 yards receiving in a Cowboys uniform, but that trend may come to an end against the Falcons, who struggle mightily against their opponent’s top receiver.
The Falcons rank 30th in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers, allowing 76.2 receiving yards per game to the opponent’s best receiver. Defensive backs Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant have taken a step back this year, as each has given up multiple touchdowns.
Moreover, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 150.5 when targeting Alford in coverage and 102.9 when targeting Trufant. In fact, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating over 100 against every Falcons cornerback who has played in more than one game. On top of that, Atlanta has four different defenders who have allowed 270-or-more yards in coverage (Alford, Trufant, Brian Poole and De’Vondre Campbell). The Cowboys have just one (Chidobe Awuzie).
To put it simply, the Falcons secondary is bad, and Amari Cooper should prosper because of it.
Since he came to Dallas, Cooper has been the focal point of the Cowboys offense, as he’s had the seventh-highest target share among wide receivers in Weeks 9-10. Targeted on 27.4 percent of Prescott’s throws, Cooper has done an excellent job of routinely getting open, giving his quarterback easy completions to keep the offense moving.
Since joining the Cowboys, Cooper has 11 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. Don’t be surprised if Cooper nearly matches those numbers against Atlanta. The Cowboys are funneling targets toward Cooper and he gets an enticing matchup against the Atlanta secondary. As long as Prescott is moderately accurate Sunday, Cooper should have a giant performance Sunday.
*Note: Football Outsiders defines DVOA as “a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.”
DeMarcus Lawrence primed for a big day
Outside of Byron Jones, the Cowboys’ best defender this year has been DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been equally effective against the run and pass this year.
Lawrence is a dynamic pass rusher who uses a wide array of hand techniques and footwork to best offensive linemen in pass protection, accumulating 37 total pressures (10th among NFL edge defenders), 6.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits and 25 hurries this season.
Moreover, he’s a strong and stout defender against the run who can penetrate and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, recording 28 total stops (third among NFL edge defenders) this season.
This week, Lawrence gets one of his tastiest matchups of the season against Ryan Schraeder, who has allowed four sacks and 22 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Schraeder is surprisingly adept at shutting down a pass rusher’s first move; however, he struggles mightily to re-leverage his hands against rushers who have active hands and understand how to sequence moves together, which is exactly where Lawrence excels.
Whether it’s against the run or pass, Lawrence should have his way with Schraeder when blocked one-on-one. Lawrence is too quick and technically adept to not take advantage of Schraeder Sunday.
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