The Week 9 edition of Monday Night Football pits two teams clinging to slim playoff hopes against each other.
The Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans are each 3-4 as of this writing, sitting multiple games behind their respective division leaders, Washington and the Texans. If either of these teams wants to play into January, a win on Monday is probably essential. It's tough to come back from 3-5, especially when you're likely already looking at needing to capture a wild-card spot.
Both teams have struggled offensively throughout much of the season, but at least their defenses have been there to pick up the slack. Coming into the game, the Cowboys have allowed the fewest points in the NFL, while the Titans rank second. (Tennessee is third behind Baltimore in points allowed per game.) They've also been the two best defenses inside the red zone, each allowing a touchdown less than 40 percent of the time opponents get inside the 20-yard line.
Can either offense manage to get the ball across the goal line on Monday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN)? If so, how will they likely do it? Read on as we discuss what to watch out for.
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but just a quick PSA here. We have a pretty amazing daily NFL podcast you may not be aware of. It's hosted by Will Brinson and it's all the things you're looking for: news, fantasy, picks, really, just football stuff for football people. Subscribe: via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google
When the Cowboys have the ball
The big thing to watch with the Dallas offense, of course, is the integration of wide receiver Amari Cooper. Both executive vice president and COO Stephen Jones and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan stated that the Cowboys have no intention of easing Cooper into the lineup, and that they want him heavily involved right away. Given that stated desire, we should expect Cooper to see the ball early in the game on easy-to-execute routes like slants, hitches, screens, and drags. Dak Prescott is generally at his best when working quick-decision routes such as those, which should make it easier to get Cooper going early in the game.
Once the Cowboys get out of their scripted early-game plays, though, things could get more interesting. Their offense was far better in the last two games before their bye week than it had been earlier in the season, largely due to the incorporation of two things: a heavy dose of slot man Cole Beasley in the passing game (Beasley had a 30.6 percent target share in Weeks 6 and 7 compared to 16.6 percent in Weeks 1 through 5) and heavier usage of Prescott as a runner (Dak had 17 carries in Weeks 6 and 7 after running 23 times in Weeks 1 through 5). Early in the season, Dallas heavily rotated its wide receivers, with Beasley, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Deonte Thompson, Terrance Williams, and rookie Michael Gallup all mixing in and out of the lineup. That shouldn't happen anymore. Cooper and Beasley figure to be near-every-snap players, and Gallup's emergence in recent weeks (3-81-1 against Washington before the bye) should put him heavily in the mix as well. Giving Prescott a stable target matrix with which to work should benefit him as the season moves along.
Of course, the Cowboys also have to keep him well-protected in order for him to have any measure of success, and that's been far more of an issue this season than one might think, given the reputation of the Dallas offensive line. The loss of star center Travis Frederick to Guillain-Barre Syndrome has been massive, even though replacement center Joe Looney himself has been largely fine. Rookie guard Connor Williams has struggled badly, All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith is having his worst season amidst various injuries to his back, and right tackle La'el Collins has remained inconsistent. As a result, Prescott has been sacked on 10 percent of his drop backs, one of the highest figures in the league. Tennessee has only 15 sacks this season, fewer than all but three teams, but its primary edge rushers are largely speed guys -- the type that have been giving Smith and Collins trouble this season. (Tennessee also has only 71 pressures, per Sports Info Solutions, more than only the Raiders, whose pass rush is more myth than reality.)
If the Cowboys manage to keep Prescott upright, he could actually find some success through the air against this Tennessee secondary. The Titans have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes at an average of 7.4 yards per attempt. Free agent signee Malcolm Butler, in particular, has struggled allowing a 138.0 passer rating on throws in his direction. That figure ranks 134th among 140 defenders who have been targeted in coverage at least 20 times this season, per SIS.
Of course, we all know that the Cowboys' passing game is largely their secondary offensive option. Dallas has one of the highest run-play rates in the NFL, preferring to let Ezekiel Elliott carry much of the offensive load while running behind All-Pro guard Zack Martin, either directly or with Martin pulling in front of the play. Elliott was pretty well bottled up against Washington in the final game before Dallas' bye but he's back to averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season after a dip to 4.1 per carry last year. The Titans have not had much success stopping runs behind the line of scrimmage this season or defending against short-yardage runs in power situations, both of which play into the Cowboys' hands when it comes to getting Elliott going.
When the Titans have the ball
Hopefully the Titans have come to the full realization that Dion Lewis is a far better back and a far better fit for their style of play than Derrick Henry. The diminutive Lewis runs with surprising power, and gets more out of his carries than the far larger Henry. He is one of the most elusive players in the league, having already broken 23 tackles on only 73 carries this season, per SIS. Those 23 broken tackles rank fourth in the NFL. Henry, meanwhile, has broken only 16 tackles on 84 carries.
Lewis also specifically helps the Titans in this matchup, as he is the far better passing-game option than Henry. The Cowboys have allowed more than six catches per game to running backs, and rank 24th in DVOA against the position, according to Football Outsiders. Considering the quality of their cornerbacks (Byron Jones has been arguably the NFL's best corner this season) and linebackers (Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch look like budding stars, while Sean Lee should return for this game), it's going to be important that Marcus Mariota always have an available check-down option that can create yardage after the catch. In previous seasons that might have been tight end Delanie Walker, but he's on injured reserve, which makes Lewis easily the best option on short passes.
When it comes to the perimeter passing game, the Titans have been wildly inconsistent. Second-year man Corey Davis is the only receiver who has been truly in the mix all season, but even he has just a 53 percent catch rate and four games with 50 receiving yards or fewer. Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe have been more reliable in terms of catch rate, but they've not been able to create chunk plays (the longest gain either of them has all season is 19 yards) and Mariota clearly doesn't have as much trust in them as he does in Davis. They've combined for 52 targets -- four fewer than Davis himself. The Cowboys figure to have Jones work across from Davis to take away that aspect of the passing game, forcing Mariota to work with his less explosive targets and try to move the ball downfield in shorter increments.
Doing so will provide them with more opportunities to beat up on an offensive line that has gotten absolutely destroyed in some games. Remember earlier when we mention Prescott's sack rate being one of the highest in the league? Well, Mariota's is even higher. He's been sacked on 11.3 percent of his drop backs this season, though, to be fair, he did get sacked 11 times in one game against the Ravens. Still, it's probably not a good sign that your offensive line has been prone to blow-up games when you're about to pay a visit to DeMarcus Lawrence. Tank ranks ninth in the NFL in pressures this season, per SIS, and the Cowboys send waves of rushers in alongside him with Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory, Taco Charlton, Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and rookie Dorance Armstrong all flashing at different times this season. (The same is true of David Irving but he suffered an ankle sprain in practice and is out for the foreseeable future.)
Keeping Lawrence and company away from Mariota long enough for Davis or Lewis or one of the supplementary receivers or wideouts to spring open will be of paramount concern for Tennessee. There's just not much faith here that they can actually do it.
Prediction: Cowboys 20, Titans 13