Have you been waiting all offseason for Sunday night? We have. In the first Sunday Night Football matchup of the 2020 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys travel to Los Angeles to help the Rams open SoFi Stadium, which, of course, Jerry Jones had a hand in helping get built.
This is one of the marquee games of the weekend, with two teams that narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season looking to get off to a better start this year. With all the offensive talent on both sides of the ball and the two teams being among the fastest-paced in football, there is potential for some fireworks -- even with stars peppering the defenses as well.
Let's break things down.
How to watch
When the Cowboys have the ball
It's best to consider the Cowboys offense in terms of what is the same, and what is different.
Dallas returns eight of its 11 offensive starters from last season, but seems to have downgraded at only one of the three positions: center, where Joe Looney will replace the retired Travis Frederick. Dallas was able to survive without Frederick two years ago when he missed the season due to Guillan-Barre Syndrome but the Cowboys weren't also dealing with the absence of right tackle La'el Collins, as they will be this week after Collins went on injured reserve due to his bothersome hip. At this point, we don't really know who will start in place of Collins, whether it be presumed swing tackle Cameron Erving (supposedly struggling in camp) or one of their unproven street free agents, Brandon Knight or Terence Steele.
Whichever of them gets the start on the right side, they'll presumably get some help in the form of chips from tight end Blake Jarwin (replacing Jason Witten, who signed with the Raiders), as well as Ezekiel Elliott and/or Tony Pollard. It helps that the strength of the Rams push rush is up the middle, as opposed to on the edge. Samson Ebukam is a solid supplementary rusher but not necessarily a game-wrecker, while Leonard Floyd has not lived up to his lofty draft status during his four years in the league. Tyron Smith should handle one of those two players with relative ease, allowing the Cowboys to have one of the tight ends or backs (or even Zack Martin) provide some help to the right tackle.
Week 1 is finally here, so who will cover the spread? Pete Prisco, R.J. White, SportsLine's Kenny White and host Will Brinson make their picks on the Pick Six Podcast; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
Inside, Aaron Donald is the main threat, but Michael Brockers shouldn't go overlooked. I would expect Donald to work over left guard Connor Williams as opposed to Martin, the better to get him freer paths into the Dallas backfield. He's a nightmare and that matchup will put incredible pressure on both Williams and Looney, but with Dallas' outside-zone based running scheme, they may also be able to take occasional advantage of Donald's (usually incredibly helpful) tendency to shoot upfield very quickly. They'll need to be more mindful of Donald's disruption on passing plays, where his ability to crash the pocket could pose problems for Dak Prescott and company. (This is especially true if the Cowboys utilize as much play-action as they did early last season, when it seemed like offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was actually modernizing their offense. Of course, that tendency faded over the course of the year as deposed head coach Jason Garrett supposedly reclaimed some level of control.)
Dallas' third new starter is rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb (replacing Randall Cobb, who is now with the Texans). Adding Lamb alongside Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup almost seems unfair, given that the Cowboys already had one of the most explosive passing attacks in the league last season. Lamb brings a lot more versatility than Cobb with his ability to line up both inside and out, which should allow the Cowboys to move Cooper around the formation a bit more often than they did last season.
No matter where Cooper goes, I expect Jalen Ramsey to travel with him. Ramsey is a shutdown corner of the highest order, and he has not been shy about his displeasure with the Cowboys' decision to take Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick in 2016 when Ramsey himself was still on the board. Cooper has struggled with shadow coverage from Ramsey-type players in the past (like both Stephon Gilmore and Tre'Davious White last year), but being able to move into the slot at times should at least allow him the occasional free release.
Even if Ramsey shuts Cooper down, Dallas should have major advantages elsewhere in the passing game. Gallup was just as good as Cooper last year, and should see a lot of Troy Hill on the outside. Gallup has some pretty big physical advantages in that matchup, and it would not be surprising to see Prescott try to connect with him on at least one jump ball down the sideline. Lamb figures to see David Long in the slot, and Long is just not equipped to handle a receiver of Lamb's caliber, if his play last year is any indication (115.4 passer rating allowed, per Pro Football Focus). Lamb's run-after-catch ability presents problems for the Rams, who allowed 5.1 yards after catch per reception last season.
Prescott should attack those matchups early and often, and we should expect the Cowboys to involve Jarwin, Elliott, and Pollard in the passing game as well. Cory Littleton, the Rams' stud coverage linebacker, is no longer with the team, and L.A. now has Micah Kiser and Troy Reeder in the middle of the defense. Dallas should be able to take advantage of them in coverage as well.
When the Rams have the ball
Much has also changed for the Rams offense.
Todd Gurley is no longer the man in the backfield, as he's been replaced by the three-man committee of Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and rookie Cam Akers. (Henderson's status is up in the air for Sunday night.) Brandin Cooks is now in Houston, which means Josh Reynolds will have a larger role... unless he's supplanted by rookie Van Jefferson. Tyler Higbee now seems like the unquestioned starter at tight end ahead of Gerald Everett, which is reversed from how the Rams opened last season. L.A.'s offensive line struggled mightily for most of last year, but finally settled into a bit of a rhythm after landing on Joseph Noteboom, Austin Blythe, and Austin Corbett as the starters on the interior.
These Rams are not the 2018 Rams, who were in 11 personnel nearly all of the time and almost always had the same 11 players on the field. We should expect more substituting, generally, as well as more varied personnel packages. The Rams' usage of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) jumped from 8 percent in 2018 to 21 percent in 2019, per Sharp Football Stats, and it wouldn't be surprising if that number jumped a bit higher again this season. Maybe not quite 2019 Eagles high (52 percent), but maybe somewhere in the range of the mid-to-high 20s, like last year's Chiefs (28 percent).
It's honestly kind of tough to break down what the matchups will look like for the Rams in the passing game, because there are just a ton of questions about this Cowboys secondary. Xavier Woods will start at one of the safety spots and Anthony Brown is almost certain to man one of the corner spots, but beyond that, we don't know much for sure.
Dallas has hinted that Chidobe Awuzie could play either corner or safety. Same goes for fourth-round rookie Reggie Robinson, though we wouldn't expect him to be as heavily-involved early in the season as second-rounder Trevon Diggs, who might (?) be one of the starting corners. Jourdan Lewis figures to move around quite a bit if he can get on the field, but he seems pretty unlikely to play. That might mean Daryl Worley is pressed into action, though we can't be sure if that'll be on the perimeter or on the inside. Darian Thompson seemingly won the starting safety spot opposite Woods, but Dallas just signed Brandon Carr to the practice squad, with the intention of eventually elevating him and having him play both corner and safety.
Brown seems like a pretty good bet to track Cooper Kupp, especially when he moves down inside. With Lewis out, Brown is Dallas' best option in the slot. If Carr plays, he would be a good matchup for Higbee. If he doesn't, the Cowboys might try Woods, Worley, or Awuzie. Honestly, who knows? Mike Nolan hasn't coordinated a defense in several years. He mostly used a 3-4 when he did, but the Cowboys have 4-3 personnel. All we know is the Cowboys plan on disguising things a bit more than they did under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, which is probably a step in the right direction. Got all that? Or is your head spinning?
Given these myriad issues, it wouldn't be surprising if the Cowboys used more zone coverages this week, the better to counteract the Rams' beloved crossing routes, pick plays, and the like. No matter what they do, Robert Woods seems like the player best positioned for success in the passing game. He somehow always gets overlooked, and he should have a change-of-direction advantage against Diggs or Worley if they match up on the outside, and unless Awuzie suddenly improved his ball skills during the offseason, Woods should have the advantage there as well.
Of course, we saw last season just how heavily dependent Jared Goff is on his offensive line's ability to hold up against the pass rush. Every quarterback performs better from a clean pocket than a muddy one, but that discrepancy is wider for Goff, and has the potential to undermine the entire offense. The line should have its hands full on Sunday night, as Dallas now boasts not just Demarcus Lawrence, but also Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith off the edge. Tyrone Crawford will presumably play both end and tackle, while Dontari Poe plays the nose and Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill (supposedly much-improved after a disastrous rookie season), and Neville Gallimore rotate through on the inside.
Just as Dallas benefits from the Rams' pass-rush strength being on the interior, LA benefits from the Cowboys' strength being on the edge. Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein are more reliable than the trio up the middle, though Havenstein should have his hands full with Lawrence for most of the night.
Prediction: Cowboys 30, Rams 24