The second of Saturday's two divisional round playoff games, the battle between the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys bears a lot of similarities to the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts.
Like the Chiefs, the Rams jumped out to a huge start this season behind a high-flying, damn near unstoppable offense led by an inventive offense coach, sparkling quarterback play, and weapons all over the field. Like the Chiefs, the Rams won their division but not without a late-season stumble.
Like the Colts, the Cowboys started the season poorly before catching fire toward the middle of the year. Dallas was 3-5 at one point before winning seven of eight games to end the season, with a fast, athletic defense and a handful of offensive stars carrying them to a string of close victories.
As is the case in the earlier matchup, the theory of the case for the underdog road squad in this NFC divisional round game is that they should run the ball into one of the NFL's lightest defensive fronts in order to control the clock and keep the opposing offense off the field. And as is also the case in that game, the home favorite's pass offense seems to have several advantages that would make the "run-to-win" strategy seem wises than it usually does.
Of course, it's not always that simple. It often comes down to the specific matchups on the field. And it likely will on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox). Here's what to watch for in Rams vs. Cowboys.
Rams' play-action passing attack vs. Cowboys' back seven defenders
Perhaps no group of players gained more esteem this season than the back second level of the Dallas Cowboys' defense. Long derided as the reason a team with a potent offense couldn't take the next step, the Dallas defense this season was by far the better of the team's two units. The Cowboys finished the year seventh in yards allowed, sixth in points allowed, and ninth in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA.
Pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is the team's best defensive player, but the Cowboys had three breakout stars on the second level as well. Cornerback Byron Jones, who moved back to the perimeter full-time this season after shuffling between corner and safety for his first three NFL seasons, emerged as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks under the tutelage of defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard. Jones allowed only 0.79 yards per snap in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, the third-best mark among the 30 corners with at least 525 snaps in coverage. He was named a second team All-Pro at the end of the season.
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Third-year linebacker Jaylon Smith, playing only his second full season after the devastating knee injury he suffered during his final collegiate game, recaptured damn near every bit of the brilliance that had him looking like a lock to be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft prior to his injury. Smith broke out as one of the handful of best inside linebackers in football, the rare inside backer who is a force against the run, in pass coverage, and as a blitzer, where he was one of the best in the league.
And rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, after easing his way into the lineup early on, made a heck of a run at Defensive Rookie of the Year. Vander Esch finished the season with 140 tackles, seven passes defensed, and two interceptions, and he was so good that the Cowboys had to take Sean Lee out of the lineup in order to keep him on the field. Keep in mind that the Dallas defense had damn near fallen apart every time Lee left the field in previous seasons -- including last year.
Even players like second-year corner Chidobe Awuzie, who started opposite Jones, as well as third-year slot corner Anthony Brown and second-year safety Xavier Woods, all came into their own this season, taking massive leaps from where they were a year ago. (Woods was terrific in coverage, posting similar numbers to players like Eric Weddle and Lamarcus Joyner.)
The one area where the entire back seven of Dallas' defense struggled, though, was against play-action passes. The ethos of both Richard and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is to be as aggressive as possible in flowing to the ball, and that aggression helped the Cowboys sport one of the best run defenses in the league. They went a little bit too all-out to stop the run on some occasions, though, and because they did, they allowed a 112.6 passer rating on play-action throws. That figure ranked 26th in the NFL.
And it just so happens that this week's opponent, the Los Angeles Rams, runs more play-action than any team in the NFL. On the balance of the season, 34.6 percent of Jared Goff's throws were of the play-action variety, per PFF, the highest rate of any quarterback in the NFL. And Goff was absolutely dynamite on those throws, completing 120 of 197 for 1,971 yards, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 112.3 passer rating that ranked seventh-best in the league. Goff's play-action performance, though, came with heavy splits.
What the Lions did against the Rams that week set the blueprint for what the Bears and Eagles have done since: they simply ignored all the bells and whistles that come along with the Rams' offensive play design, steadfastly refusing to react to play-action fakes and daring McVay to run the ball or Goff to complete short passes against soft zones and methodically work the ball downfield.
On his play-action throws, Goff has essentially gone from being better than Patrick Mahomes to being worse than Ryan Leaf. And that's not the only area of struggle for either him or the Rams. Because teams are no longer reacting to play-action like they used to, they are able to either sit back in a soft zone -- which helps neutralize the crossing routes that form so much of the basis of the Rams' offense -- or pin their ears back and come after Goff -- which has resulted in his being pressured far more often over the past three weeks than he was earlier in the year.
Those last two notes are important as well: the Cowboys play a lot of zone coverage under Marinelli and Richard, which helps neutralize some of the crossing routes. And Lawrence, Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, and Randy Gregory have been increasingly strong getting pressure up front, which gives the Rams less time to allow their play-action game to develop. Goff held the ball more than 2.5 seconds before throwing on 60 percent of his throws this season, per PFF, the highest rate in the league. Against teams that play more man coverage, that just gives guys more time to spring open. Against zones, it often gives the rushmen more time to get after Goff himself.
That's often where the play-action comes in for the Rams, as the run fakes sucks linebackers and safeties up toward the line and lets Goff fire passes into large windows over the middle. We saw exactly this sort of thing happen last week when Russell Wilson went 9 of 10 for 111 yards on play-action throws against Dallas. If the Rams can find similar success on throws after faking the run to Todd Gurley, it could be a long day for the Dallas defense.
But if the backers and safeties hang back, let Gurley rip off his 6-7-yard runs every once in a while, and sit in coverage against Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and company, well those guys may have a hard time getting open with the kind of regularity they did early in the season.
Cowboys' offensive line vs. Aaron Donald's game-wrecking skills
There isn't a single defender in the league who can wreck a game like Aaron Donald. The $135 million man in the middle is the most unblockable player in the NFL, equally capable of beating defenders with a move to the inside or outside, with speed or with power, with technique or with athleticism. The numbers he had this year are straight out of a video game on Rookie mode: 59 tackles, a league-high 25 of them for a loss; 51 run stops, again the highest total in the league, per Pro Football Focus; 20.5 sacks, an NFL-best; and 106 pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries), more than any other player in football. And all this as an interior lineman.
There is no more important task for the Cowboys on Sunday than figuring out how to get their offense on track while dealing with the possibility that Donald will completely destroy any plans they might have. The chess match between Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his former assistant, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, regarding where Donald lines up on pass plays vs. run plays will be fascinating to watch unfold. The Cowboys' interior linemen have vastly different levels of skill and effectiveness, and getting Donald lined up over the right player at the right time could be the key to shutting down Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott-led ground game and putting enough pressure on Dak Prescott to ensure that he has to hold the ball and make something happen off schedule rather than delivering in rhythm.
The two starters we know of for Dallas are right guard Zack Martin and center Joe Looney. Martin played a bit banged up last week but was fantastic, and he is one of the very best linemen -- at any position -- in all of football. He made his fifth straight Pro Bowl and All-Pro team this season, and he's been in the league for five years. Looney was solid if unspectacular filling in for star center Travis Frederick this year, but he is obviously not on either Frederick's or Martin's level. We don't yet know who will start at left guard for the Cowboys, but whether it's rookie Connor Williams or veteran Xavier Su'a-Filo, that player will be the weakest of Dallas' interior trio and no match for Donald.
If the Rams had their way, they would likely line Donald up in front of Martin on every run play and in front of either Looney or Williams or Su'a-Filo when the Cowboys are passing. Donald is least likely of the Rams' front-line defenders to get blown off the ball by Martin, and if he's able to wrangle with the star guard inside, it could go a long way toward slowing down the Dallas run game, which is at its best when running to either side of Martin. (This is likely the Rams' only hope of slowing down the Dallas rushing attack. The Cowboys are committed to running the ball and the Rams have a dreadful run defense. It's either going to take the Rams jumping out to a big lead or Donald just wrecking the game in order to get the Cowboys to shift their focus to the pass.)
But Martin is also by far the Cowboys' best interior pass protector, with zero holding calls and only four blown pass blocks this year, per Sports Info Solutions. Looney, by contrast, was called for four holds and blew nine pass blocks, while Williams and Su'a-Filo combined for five holds and 16 blown blocks in the passing game. Getting Donald matched up with any of them makes it far more likely that the Rams will get pressure on Prescott, and though Dak actually had the second-best under-pressure passer rating in the NFL this season, it still dropped off from where he was when throwing from a clean pocket, as it does for almost every quarterback.
Even last week against the Seahawks, the Cowboys allowed pressure on 14 of 34 drop backs, a figure slightly higher than their 37 percent pressure rate during the regular season. Prescott was just 6 of 13 for 48 yards and a sack on those plays, which often involved him holding the ball and scrambling around to try to make something happen. Dak was far better when delivering quickly this season, posting a 12-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 103.4 passer rating on throws within 2.5 seconds of the snap, per Pro Football Focus, compared to a 10-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 88.7 rating on throws where 2.6 seconds or more elapsed between the snap and the throw.
The Rams, of course, have other pressure players not named Donald. Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler and Sam Ebukam can also get pressure on the quarterback as well, and Suh in particular is a fantastic run defender. But none of them presents the consistent snap-to-snap challenge of Donald, who can single-handedly ruin an opponent's game-plan in a way no other play in the league can right now.
Prediction: Rams 26, Cowboys 24