As is the case every week, the Dallas Cowboys’ Week 4 trip into San Diego to take on the Chargers will be a game of matchups. Unlike in Kansas City in Week 2, however, the Cowboys seem to own some advantages in a few key areas.
First, the ‘Boys should be able to throw all over the Chargers. That’s the approach suggested in yesterday’s game plan for Dallas since San Diego currently ranks last against the pass. San Diego is banged up in the secondary, so quarterback Tony Romo should be looking for receiver Dez Bryant early and often.
Next, the Cowboys should be able to get pressure without rushing more than four defenders. They shouldn’t send extra rushers too often anyway since quarterback Philip Rivers has thrown the ball in an average of only 2.46 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Finally, the Cowboys’ cornerbacks should be able to handle the Chargers’ undersized receivers, particularly overachieving Eddie Royal. That leaves tight end Antonio Gates to defend over the middle of the field, particularly in the red zone. Gates’ career touchdown rate of 41.6 percent inside the opponent’s 20-yard line trumps that of Royal (15.4 percent) by a wide margin.
The Cowboys will need to win some other key matchups to come out of San Diego victorious. Here they are.
LT Tyron Smith vs. OLB Dwight Freeney
Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has only 0.5 sacks through three games, but he’s found himself around the quarterback often. He’s pressured the passer on 12.7 percent of his pass-rush snaps. Sacks tend to add up to one-fourth of pressures for most players, meaning Freeney’s most likely sack total through three games is actually three.
If we look at Freeney's production over the past few years, we see an obvious decline in efficiency up until this year. He's really playing well right now, so it's imperative for Dallas to limit his effectiveness.
The Chargers’ outside linebacker lines up primarily on the right side of the defense and almost never drops into coverage, meaning he’ll see a heavy dose of left tackle Tyron Smith. The third-year pro hasn’t been outstanding in pass protection thus far in 2013, but he’s performed better than last year—his pressure rate has decreased by 50 percent—and he’s been great in the running game. The ‘Boys could probably find success by running right at Freeney on third downs.
WR Dez Bryant vs. CB Johnny Patrick
It’s looking like cornerback Shareece Wright won’t be able to suit up, leaving Johnny Patrick to start.
The Cowboys can really take advantage of Patrick if he’s ever lined up on Bryant. San Diego might use starting cornerback Derek Cox—who stands 6’1’’—to shadow Bryant, but we don’t know if that’s the case just yet. If Patrick is indeed on Bryant, particularly in the red zone, the receiver should be able to physically outmatch the cornerback.
Interior Line vs. LB Manti Te’o
Veteran guard Brian Waters will get his first start with the Cowboys on Sunday, joining center Travis Frederick and left guard Ronald Leary on the inside. That trio isn’t particularly athletic, but they’re big and could cause problems for rookie linebacker Manti Te’o.
Te’o will see his first game action as a pro against Dallas. The linebacker was incredibly productive, totaling 437 tackles in four years, but he’s probably a bit undersized to continually stand up against the Cowboys’ interior line.
OC Bill Callahan vs. DC John Pagano
It will really be interesting to see how Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano attacks Dallas. He could want to send extra rushers after Romo, but that will be dangerous with Bryant working on cornerbacks on the outside.
We’ll also need to see if Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan begins the contest with a conservative game. Dallas had obvious success on the ground last week, but that doesn’t mean they should run the ball early in this contest. The primary area where they can exploit San Diego is through the air.
As mentioned on the “On Air” podcast, the Cowboys were perhaps too conservative in road games last year. Of Romo’s 65 passes of at least 20 yards or more in 2012, only 25 came on the road. This isn’t a game to come out with a conservative approach, though, considering the potential advantages Dallas has in the passing game.
QB Philip Rivers vs. Four-Man Rush
As mentioned, Rivers has been getting the ball out in a hurry this year. He’s really helped his offensive line, and it’s resulted in some big-time numbers. Rivers has been particularly efficient against the blitz, totaling a 122.9 passer rating when defenses have sent five or more rushers.
Perhaps the most important factor for Dallas this weekend will be whether or not they can get to Rivers with only four rushers. If they can, it’s going to be really difficult for the Chargers to move the ball.
LT Mike Harris vs. DE DeMarcus Ware
One of the biggest advantages for Dallas in this contest will be defensive end DeMarcus Ware on whoever plays left tackle. King Dunlap hasn’t practiced this week after suffering a concussion, so it looks like he’ll be a no-go. That would leave backup left tackle Mike Harris to get the start.
Ware has lined up on the right side of the Dallas defense on exactly three-quarters of his 2013 snaps, so he’ll be matched up primarily with Harris. That’s a potentially disastrous situation for the Chargers, so it’s very likely that they’ll use a tight end to at least chip Ware and perhaps a running back as well. Look for San Diego to use a lot more two-tight sets than normal so they can help out on Ware while still getting Gates into a route.
RT D.J. Fluker vs. DE George Selvie
Opposite Ware, defensive end George Selvie won’t be seeing nearly the same amount of attention. Because of San Diego’s weakness on the left side and their anticipated strategy of doubling Ware, it could be Selvie who has the greatest impact in this contest.
Selvie has been outstanding for Dallas in 2013, currently leading the team in pressures. If we were paying attention in the preseason, we should have seen the signs that Selvie might be special. On Sunday, he’ll get a chance to feast on a right tackle playing in just his third NFL game.