The Dallas Cowboys’ Week 8 meeting with the Detroit Lions is a unique one because of all the interesting matchups across the board. The two teams are built similarly, with both possessing high-powered offenses and porous defenses. Actually both the Cowboys and Lions rank in the top four in the NFL in passing yards but the bottom four in passing yards allowed.
Unlike the Cowboys, though, the Lions have an explosive defensive line. The same could potentially be true of the Cowboys, but defensive end DeMarcus Ware still isn’t practicing and the signs don’t look good for Sunday. That means the ‘Boys have two weak links across the line in defensive end Kyle Wilber and defensive tackle Nick Hayden.
As usual, the team that can win the majority of its one-on-one battles will probably come out victorious. Not all of those matchups are created equally. Here are five vital matchups to watch for Dallas.
Interior Line vs. DT Ndamukong Suh
As much as everyone hounds Suh for being a dirty player, he’s certainly a tenacious defensive tackle who can take over games at times. The Cowboys are probably more vulnerable to that than your average team with a mediocre-at-best interior line.
And Suh is once again dominating. He’s leading his team in pressures, which is rare for any defensive tackle.
So what can Dallas do to limit Suh’s impact? Well, the obvious answer is to double him. Many defenses might blitz the “Mike” linebacker so that the interior line can’t double-team their defensive tackles, and that’s certainly a possibility from Detroit.
However, the Lions haven’t blitzed much this year.
Further, I checked out middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch’s snap distribution over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he’s blitzed on just 25 of 318 pass snaps in 2013 (7.9 percent). Even with defensive tackle Nick Fairley also playing inside, the Cowboys should double Suh on the majority of snaps.
RT Doug Free vs. DE Willie Young
I highlighted this matchup between Free and Young in my article "What You Need to Know Heading into Week 8." Young ranks just behind Suh in pressure rate, and he has more quarterback hits. He’s a bit of a streaky player, but with 34.5-inch arms—the most important trait for pass-rushers—Young has the potential to wreak havoc.
Free has grown by leaps-and-bounds since 2012. After allowing a pressure on 6.1 percent of his pass snaps last year, Free checks in at just 3.6 percent in 2013. If Free can control Young on his own, it will go a long way in allowing the Cowboys to contain the Lions’ other feared pass-rushers.
WR Terrance Williams vs. CB Chris Houston
No wide receiver in the NFL has generated a higher passer rating for his quarterback than Williams. When throwing to Williams, Romo has completed an amazing 24 of 28 passes for 380 yards, three touchdowns and one pick.
You can see how Williams’ efficiency has increased throughout the year.
His top three games in terms of yards per target have been over the past three weeks. During that time, he’s averaged an unreal 19.2 yards per target.
Williams will likely be matched up primarily on Houston because, with Houston struggling, the Lions likely won’t want him on wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Houston ranks near the bottom in the NFL in yards allowed per route. If he’s on Williams, look for the rookie wide receiver to have a big day.
CB Morris Claiborne vs. WR Kris Durham
On the opposite side of the ball, the Cowboys’ primary task is clearly stopping wide receiver Calvin Johnson. But that’s so obvious that there’s not much use rehashing what’s been written throughout the week.
Cornerback Brandon Carr is going to cover Johnson, and it looks like he’ll shadow him wherever he goes.
That’s a smart move by Dallas since Claiborne is struggling, allowing a team-high 1.63 yards per route. With Carr and likely a safety over top of Megatron at all times, Claiborne will probably be singled up on Durham.
Durham is far from a dominant receiver, but his 6’6” height could give the 5’11” Claiborne some problems. Claiborne could struggle in the red zone, in particular, so this will definitely be a matchup to monitor.
DE George Selvie vs. RT Corey Hilliard
With Ware likely out, the Cowboys desperately need a big game from Selvie. He provided one last week with 1.5 sacks. Against the Eagles, Selvie and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher combined for nine pressures—the same number that came from the other six defensive linemen who played.
With Selvie lining up primarily on the left side of the Cowboys defense, he’ll see a heavy dose of Hilliard, who has struggled this season.
Offensive tackles typically have higher pressure rates than interior linemen because they work on the edge against better pass-rushers, but the Lions offensive tackles’ pressure rates are worse than the league average at their position, while the interior line—namely center Dominic Raiola and guard Larry Wardford—have been better than the league average.
The Cowboys need their secondary to perform well in coverage this week. The easiest way to do that is to reduce the time they need to cover by getting to quarterback Matthew Stafford, and Selvie is a major part of that task.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.