Wed. Jan 23rd, 2019

Cowboys-Rams guide: Can Dallas handle what McVay’s got in store?

NFC Divisional Round
Who:
Dallas Cowboys (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3)
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
TV: FOX
Odds: Rams -7
Over/Under: 49.5

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Cowboys Rams
Points Per Game 21.2 (22) 32.9 (2)
Points Allowed/Game 20.3 (6) 24.0 (20)
Rush Yards/Game 122.7 (10) 139.4 (3)
Pass Yards/Game 221 (23) 282 (5)
Total Yards/Game 343.8 (22) 421.1 (2)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 94.6 (5) 122.3 (23)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 235 (13) 236 (14)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 329.3 (7) 358.6 (19)
Third-Down Offense 41.4% (10) 45.0% (5)
Third-Down Defense 42.3% (27) 37.2% (12)
Team Sacks 39 (T-16) 41 (15)
Turnover Differential +3 (12) +11 (4)

(Regular season rank in parentheses)

Game-breaker

Can Rams rediscover their offensive flair?

Sean McVay is a hot name in NFL circles. If you've ever met the Rams head coach, served him a coffee, or let him cut in line in front of you at the bank, you might get an interview for an NFL coaching job. It's understandable given McVay's transformation of Jared Goff and the Rams' offense, which was one of the most explosive in the league through the first two-thirds of the season. Then, something changed.

It began with the Detroit Lions, of all teams.

One key to McVay's offense was the use of movement and motion, particularly jet motion, to get the defense moving pre-snap. McVay built this into a large percentage of plays as a potential handoff or touch pass to the receiver in motion, but also as a decoy. According to Keegan Abdoo, a researcher with NFL's Next Gen Stats, the Rams used jet sweep plays more than anyone in the league by an enormous margin.

Consider this play against the Lions. Brandin Cooks comes in jet motion, but he's a decoy. Detroit has a defender trailing Cooks, and he gets pulled down toward the line of scrimmage, opening up a window to throw a deep out route to Tyler Higbee:

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NFL

So what did the Lions do that teams copied in subsequent weeks? They ignored these looks. Having found themselves with a defender or two out of position because of jet motion, the Lions ignored it and tried to play the odds. Sometimes, the strategy paid off, as it also did here for the Chicago Bears:

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NFL

Rather than send a defender across the formation trailing the motion man, the Bears simply stayed home. That left them with an extra defender on the side of this running play, and Chicago stopped Todd Gurley for a loss.

Saturday's game could come down to whether the Rams' offense or the Cowboys' defense has the answer on these motion plays from Los Angeles. Do the Cowboys follow the recent trend of ignoring motion? If so, do the Rams have an adjustment, and will they incorporate the motion man into the design of the play instead of using him as a decoy?

Biggest mismatch

Rams DT Ndamukong Suh vs. Cowboys C Joe Looney

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald is a huge mismatch against anyone he faces; however, expect the Cowboys to pull out all the stops in order to slow him down or mitigate his effectiveness. Since Donald will receive so much attention, Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh could have a big day.

Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves to move his defensive linemen around to create mismatches. Phillips will likely try to create one-on-one matchups with Suh against Cowboys center Joe Looney, who tends to struggle against powerful defensive tackles with length who are deliberate with their hands.

While Suh isn't as consistent a pocket penetrator as he once was, he's still strong at the point of attack, and he's capable of controlling and discarding blocks at the line of scrimmage because of his length and strength. Here's a great example:

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NFL

Here, Suh is aligned with a slight outside shade over Seahawks center Justin Britt. Once the ball is snapped, Suh mirrors Britt's initial movements, allowing Suh to stay square and latch onto Britt's frame with superior hand placement.

From there, Suh controls Britt at the point of attack while identifying the running back's path. Suh is effectively two-gapping because his control of Britt allows him to defend both A-gaps. With that control, he easily sheds the block and makes the tackle once the running back cuts into Suh's area.

Suh should enjoy similar success against Looney in the run game. When the Cowboys opt to run the ball between the tackles, expect Suh to be extremely disruptive.

3 keys to the game

Can Dallas handle the Rams' jet motion? The Rams' offense is largely predicated on the jet motion. It's how they get a defense out of its run fits while stressing the perimeter and helping open up easier throws for Goff by revealing coverages.

The Bears gave Dallas the blueprint in Week 14. As seen above, Chicago didn’t respect the give on L.A.'s motions. Instead, the Bears slanted the front against the motion side, getting quick penetration and taking away the Rams' vaunted rushing attack.

In the past few weeks, McVay's given the ball on jet sweeps more than ever before, and he needs defenses to start respecting the give. Let's see what Cowboys defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard has planned.

Can the Rams block Demarcus Lawrence? Lawrence is as fearsome an edge rusher as the NFL can offer right now, using a blend of speed, power, and explosiveness to blow past blockers.

The Rams will assign Rob Havenstein to Lawrence, hoping he can stick with the star pass-rusher one on one so that they can allocate resources to the rest of Dallas' front. Havenstein is a brilliant player (better in the run game than in pass protection), but nobody can deal with Lawrence when he's feeling it.

How healthy is Aqib Talib? It sounds hyperbolic, but Talib is arguably the most important defender remaining in the playoffs.

Per Pro Football Focus, in the Weeks 1-3 and 13-17 games that Talib started, the Rams' pass defense surrendered a passer rating of 74.5 (third-best in the NFL) and 10.4 yards per reception (seventh-best). In the eight games he missed, the Rams allowed the third-worst passer rating in the league and were second-worst in yards per completion. Further, the Rams had the top touchdown-to-interception ratio in the league with Talib in the lineup, conceding just eight passing touchdowns while picking off 12 throws. Without him? Dead last.

There's a lot of noise in those numbers - the schedule, other players' health, and game plans all play a role - but they're still jarring. Having Talib for the postseason is a game-changer as long as he's somewhat close to full health.

Betting action report

The line and total on the Dallas-Los Angeles game have been static compared to the other games on the docket, but the Cowboys are another public pick, with 68 percent of the ticket count on the spread and 71 percent on the moneyline.

The Rams figure to be a teaser liability for the 'books as seven-point favorites and should be even more so if the line drops under seven. The Cowboys' struggles in the divisional round have been well-documented, as they're 0-5 SU and 1-4 ATS in the previous five.

Predictions

Mark Schofield: McVay's gotten an extra week to come up with ideas for attacking the Cowboys' defense, and he won't try the same run-heavy approach the Seattle Seahawks attempted last week. Rams 31, Cowboys 24.

John Owning: Ezekiel Elliott has a big game attacking the edges and Goff coughs the ball up a couple times, leading to a Dallas upset. Cowboys 24, Rams 20.

Oliver Connolly: I'm taking the Rams. They're the more complete and trustworthy side. Rams 17, Cowboys 14.

Alex Kolodziej: Dallas can't trade punches with L.A.'s offense and gets steamrolled. Rams 31, Cowboys 16.

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