The Cincinnati Bengals hope to extend their win streak to five this Sunday when they host the Dallas Cowboys, but it won't be easy. While the Cowboys aren't one of the best teams in the league by any stretch, they are one of the most unpredictable, which makes them a dangerous opponent for the Bengals this week.
To the Bengals' credit, they've built their four-game win streak by playing solid, consistent football on a weekly basis, regardless of opponent.
There were some signs of struggle last week against the San Diego Chargers, with two Andy Dalton turnovers and 102 receiving yards given up to Danario Alexander, but the Bengals still managed to win and learn some valuable lessons in the process.
So how can the Bengals build upon their last four weeks of success and defeat the Cowboys this Sunday? Here's a game plan that should result in yet another Cincinnati win.
Containing Dez Bryant
Though Dallas tight end Jason Witten is always considered to be the most fearsome receiving target for quarterback Tony Romo, the team's offensive success or failure actually rests upon the shoulders of wide receiver Dez Bryant.
If the ball can stay out of Bryant's hands, the greater the chance the Cowboys will lose, and that's something the Bengals defenders needs to keep in the forefront of their minds on Sunday.
There are two ways to prevent Bryant from making plays: good coverage and pressure on Romo. If Romo doesn't have time to throw an accurate pass, then Bryant is neutralized immediately. If Romo can get the ball away, then Bryant needs to be so closely covered that targeting him becomes a mistake.
Bryant is on a bit of a hot streak, with 26 catches on 32 targets for 388 yards and five scores over his past three games. At one time known for his disappearing act—being a factor in no more than the first two quarters and making little impact in the second half—he's now dangerous for a full 60 minutes and has burned unsuspecting defenses week after week.
The Bengals had trouble keeping Chargers receivers Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander covered last week primarily because of their size—both are 6'5"—but Bryant is a more manageable 6'2".
Though he's been getting more physical in recent weeks, he's also susceptible to cornerbacks who play him with physicality. Knocking him off his routes and making Romo pay via interceptions when he tries to make a risky throw will do much to diminish Bryant's role.
Up front, the Bengals need only to do what they've been doing against quarterbacks all season long.
Romo has thrown 15 interceptions this year and has been sacked 28 times, all of the latter coming after he's held onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or more (per Pro Football Focus). Keeping Bryant—as well as other receiving options—covered is how to take Romo down, or at the very least force him to throw a bad pass that a Bengals defender can then intercept.
Dallas is one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to putting up touchdowns when it is in the red zone. It has gotten a touchdown just 46.15 percent of the time it has reached the red zone, with that number dropping to 40 percent when on the road.
If the Bengals can take the Cowboys' biggest scoring threat—Bryant—out of the picture, then the likelihood of them putting up multiple touchdowns drops considerably.
Keep Running the Ball
As the season wears on, the Cowboys defense appears to be more and more susceptible to teams running the ball against it. Though it is giving up an average of 116.5 rushing yards per game, that number jumps to 150.3 yards over Dallas' past three games and it allowed 183 last week to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Over the same three-game span, the Bengals' run game has found its footing, with 189, 221 and 128 rushing yards, respectively.
That has everything to do with BenJarvus Green-Ellis finally realizing his full potential in his new offense—this is shaping up to be the best season of his career—as well as the Bengals' offensive line becoming a strong, cohesive unit.
Running the ball may be even more important to the Bengals this week, with it looking possible that tight end Jermaine Gresham will miss the Cowboys game with a hamstring injury. Gresham was limited in practice on Wednesday and then did not participate (per The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy) on Thursday, not boding well for his chances.
Gresham is Andy Dalton's second-most productive target on the year, with his 593 yards and five touchdowns trailing only A.J. Green.
Without Gresham on the field, it will be more difficult to get the ball into Green's hands, which means the Bengals will need the run game to open up the passing via the play action.
Though teams have seen the uptick in Cincinnati's run game, the offense is still likely seen as a passing unit first. The Bengals can use this perception to their advantage by giving Green-Ellis 25 carries and letting him bust through Dallas' defensive front when it may have been expecting a pass.
While Green will manage to get open and the Bengals most certainly will need to balance the run game with a healthy dose of passing, recent history seems to suggest not only that the Bengals will be able to run the ball well, but also that Dallas' defense will give up a great deal of rushing yards.
The Bengals should take advantage of these facts and take Sunday's game to the trenches.