This week's guest in the "Know Your Enemy" series is Keith Mullins. Representing the Cowboys comes naturally for Keith. He is the editor of DraftCowboys.com and also co-hosts a lively weekly podcast at Cowboys Central Radio. You can follow Keith on Twitter @keithdeuces.
Here is our discussion of this week's game.
For fans that haven’t seen much of the Cowboys this season, they’d probably first think of Miles Austin, but he hasn’t been right in recent weeks with a hamstring injury and the team is considering shutting him down altogether until he’s fully healthy.
The good news for the Lions ends there, however, as the quality of targets available to Tony Romo has allowed them to weather Austin’s absence quite handily.
Outside, rookie Terrance Williams out of Baylor is rapidly developing a rapport with Romo, catching touchdowns in each of the last three weeks, including the critical fourth quarter score that put the game away last week in Philadelphia.
Assuming Austin’s role in the slot is diminutive SMU product Cole Beasley. At just 5’8”, Beasley possesses water bug change of direction skills, sure hands, and excellent feel for finding space, earning him an ever increasing number of chain moving targets and presenting real match up problems for underneath coverage.
The Cowboys are increasingly making an effort to get as many receivers on the field as possible, including tight end Jason Witten, evidenced by 54 of the team’s 73 offensive plays against the Eagles last week being snapped with at least three wide receivers and the tight end on the field.
I made Jason Witten a focal point of my game plan breakdown for a reason. As Keith noted, they use him extensively in combination with three wideouts, which will often leave him isolated in coverage.
Terrance Williams' speed also worries me. Even though he's still pretty raw as a route runner, he winds up behind the coverage a little too readily for my comfort level.
It wouldn't surprise me if Romo throws for over 350 yards in this game. The Lions pass defense will have to be at its absolute best to contain them.
How is the new-look 4-3 line working out under former Lions coach Rod Marinelli?
I’d expect that Marinelli’s 10-38 record as the Lion’s head coach does little to endear him to Detroit fans, but he has achieved full-blown cult hero status in his short time in Dallas.
The move was made to the 4-3 with the belief that the personnel on hand had long been better suited to that system than the 3-4 they had run since Bill Parcells was hired. That personnel, however, has been decimated by an unfortunate concentration of serious injuries within the group Marinelli has dubbed his “rushmen.”
Five defensive linemen have already been lost for the season, including projected starters Anthony Spencer and the recently released Jay Ratliff, as well as reserves Tyrone Crawford, Ben Bass, and Edgar Jones.
Pro scouting has done a remarkable job keeping a conveyor belt of serviceable bodies running directly to Marinelli’s meeting room as seven of the ten defensive linemen presently on the 53-man roster were not Cowboys last season, six of them have been added since training camp broke.
Through it all, Marinelli’s MacGyver-like ability to get all of the moving parts believing and pulling in the same direction with little more than bubble gum and baling wire to work with has him on a pedestal in the eyes of Cowboys fans.
The defense has embraced his attitude and ranks 7th in the league in sacks, and 3rd in takeaways. Veteran defensive tackle Jason Hatcher has been a stabilizing force, emerging as a leader and producing a career year in Marinelli’s system. He presently grades out as the top defensive tackle in the league as measured by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While fans appreciate the effort to assemble spare parts into an effective machine, the transition hasn’t been without its growing pains. The Cowboys presently rank 29th in total yards allowed, and 30th versus the pass.
Overall, the defense is seen as an improving work in progress, coming off the it’s best effort of the season in holding Chip Kelly’s frenetic Eagles attack to just three points on Sunday. Stingy red zone defense and the aforementioned turnovers contribute to a middle of the pack status in terms of points allowed.
The key is Jason Hatcher. Like Keith pointed out, he's been phenomenal. Center Dominic Raiola and right guard Larry Warford will have their hands full in pass protection.
The rest of the line should not find much success against the Lions. One big key will be not having Demarcus Ware, and it doesn't look like the star end will play.
DE DeMarcus Ware is not optimistic that he'll be able to play Sunday against Detroit. More at http://t.co/gDRcfZQXli— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) October 24, 2013
Without edge pressure, quarterback Matt Stafford should have time to throw and escape routes from the inside pressure of Hatcher.
I think the primary beneficiary of their injury-ravaged line will be Reggie Bush. Last week he couldn't get started, with Bengals defenders shutting off his running lanes and attacking him in the backfield. I don't see Dallas being able to do that, and I think Bush could have a big day running the ball.
What is one overlooked strength of the Cowboys?
Cornerback Brandon Carr. It’s hard for a $50 million dollar free agent acquisition to be overlooked, but membership on the league’s 30th ranked pass defense can have that effect. Carr’s emergence as a shutdown cornerback has coincided with increased use of man coverage outside by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
In the past three weeks Carr has held Denver’s Demaryius Thomas to five catches for 53 yards, Washington’s Pierre Garcon to six catches for 63 yards, and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson to three receptions for 21 yards, frustrating the dynamic receiver all afternoon. None of the three found the end zone.
The Cowboys are still multiple in coverage, and will mix in zone against the Lions as well, but Carr’s recent performance points to Sunday’s most intriguing one on one match up in my eyes, as he’ll be asked to shadow Calvin Johnson for much of the game.
I'm a big Brandon Carr fan from his days at Grand Valley State, which is just up the road from me here in West Michigan. He's a naturally sticky cover man, and it seems like the Cowboys are using him wisely. He presents an underrated challenge for Calvin Johnson.
My guess to his answer was going to be the pass protection. Dallas has been pilloried in recent years for not being able to protect Tony Romo, but they've been much better recently. They rank ninth in sack percentage per teamrankings.com, which is a strong rating. I don't think the national perception has quite caught up to that reality just yet.
What is your biggest worry in facing the Lions?
Without a doubt, Calvin Johnson is the Lion that keeps me up at night, and rightfully so. Carr will certainly get safety help at times in checking Johnson, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the linebackers tasked with buzzing underneath to take away the slant as well, but Johnson represents the Lions' most likely path to points and the Cowboys simply can’t allow him to easily convert scoring opportunities.
I don't disagree with Keith, but my hope is that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan concocts a game plan which uses this fear of Johnson against Dallas. Sean Lee is a very good linebacker, but I really like the combination of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in attacking the second level of the Dallas defense as both runners and receivers.
If they're paying so much mind to Megatron, the running backs can have a big combined day and Dallas cannot do much about it.
Who wins, and why?
This one certainly presents itself as a meeting of gifted pass offenses facing defenses that have been quite generous through the air. I think it becomes a question of which way the arrow is pointing for the respective defenses.
For all of the early season struggles the Cowboys defense has faced, I think the defensive coaches are demonstrating an understanding of how best to utilize the talent at their disposal. The Cowboys have been salty in the red zone of late. Expect them to give Johnson whatever attention it takes in an effort to get the Lions to settle for three points on their red zone opportunities.
Ultimately I think the Cowboys secure a third consecutive victory because of the style of defense Detroit plays. For all the challenges that the Lions’ defensive line presents, the Cowboys’ offense has been at it’s most explosive against four man fronts that are reluctant to blitz. The ability to spread out teams that attempt to play coverage against them has resulted in points in bunches.
I expect the Cowboys to play most of their offensive snaps from the shotgun, with three wide receivers and Witten in an attempt to find the breaking point of the Lions’ secondary. That effort, coupled with a defense showing evidence of progress, I expect will result in a second straight road win.
Cowboys 31, Lions 23
This game worries me from a Detroit standpoint. Perhaps I watched the Cincinnati game too many times, but the defense is trending in the wrong direction in my eyes. Dallas is a rough opponent to face when not at the top of one's game on defense.
I also worry about the Detroit offensive line. With both starting tackles limited in practice this week, the line could be a real problem.
Detroit will win if the lines play well on both sides of the ball. But the way the defensive line has been playing, I cannot count on that unit bailing out the coverage behind it. As Keith intimates, their ability to spread out the defense and attack with multiple weapons is a major problem for the Detroit defense.
This game will be close, but I have a sinking feeling Detroit hits the bye week at 4-4 with a tough home loss.
Dallas 30, Detroit 27