Sitting with the same 6-5 record as the division rival Eagles, the Cowboys again face a pivotal matchup, this time a tilt with the Raiders. Dallas really needs to come up big before closing out the season with Chicago, Green Bay (and presumably a healthy Aaron Rodgers), Washington and Philly.
The 'Boys are currently 9.5-point favorites over Oakland, so they're fully expected to win the game. That's seemed to spell trouble in the past, with Dallas playing up and down to their competition.
To ensure they come out victorious, the Cowboys will need to win a few key matchups and play smart football along the way. Here's how they can do that.
Blitz quarterback Matt McGloin.
The Raiders will be starting rookie quarterback Matt McGloin. Through three games, McGloin has completed only 55.7 percent of his passes. At ABC, I gave an extended explanation as to why I think that's the case:
We continually see the tallest quarterbacks perform the best, but perhaps not because of their height. Height is strongly correlated with hand size, so if hand size were really a strong predictor of quarterback success, we’d expect it to be reflected in the relationship between height and career stats.
But when you start to analyze some of the short quarterbacks with unusually large hands—Russell Wilson and Drew Brees among them—you see that hand length is an even better predictor than height. Teams are valuing the wrong trait, so they could actually acquire value in the draft by searching for short quarterbacks with large hands.
My guess is that large hands help quarterbacks control the football and throw it accurately. That’s perhaps one reason why McGloin—who has unbelievably small hands—has been horribly inaccurate over his football career. In three seasons at Penn State, he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and his completion rate through three NFL games is just 55.7 percent.
Regardless of the reason behind McGloin's struggles, the bottom line for Dallas is that they shouldn't blitz him. Many teams seem to think it's smart to blitz a rookie or inexperienced quarterback, but blitzing is high-variance; i.e. there's lots of upside but lots of risk as well.
When you're the heavy favorite in a game, though, your strategy should be dictated by risk-minimization. It's possible that Oakland could take down Dallas even if both teams play well, but even more likely is that the Cowboys beat themselves.
By playing conservatively on defense, Dallas can force McGloin to repeatedly beat them underneath. As of Week 12, he hasn't shown the ability to do that.
Play the pass on first down.
The Raiders run the ball on first down way more than the league average.
Their pass rate is far lower than the mean through each quarter. Nonetheless, the Cowboys should play the pass on first down. Again, this is about risk-minimization.
The downside to playing the pass with two deep safeties is that Oakland can run the ball a little bit. Big deal. The risk of playing aggressively on first down, though, is a quick, fluky touchdown caused because the Cowboys are in man coverage.
When you weigh the downsides of each approach, it's no contest; the Cowboys need to play risk-free football to make the Raiders earn everything they get.
Put pressure on left guard Lucas Nix.
Raiders left guard Lucas Nix has been absolutely atrocious this season. To give you an idea of how bad he's been, I used numbers from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) to chart his pressure rate next to that for the Cowboys' guards.
Nix has allowed over twice as many pressures as anyone who has played guard for Dallas this year. It's not over a small sample size, either, because Nix has spent 325 snaps in pass protection.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin needs to do what he can to exploit Nix, possibly by making sure he's isolated on defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.
Continue to use play-action.
As I mentioned in my breakdown of wide receiver Dez Bryant's usage, the Cowboys finally wised up and ramped up their play-action passing game last week. After averaging 4.1 play-action passes per game through Week 11, the 'Boys called for 15 against the Giants alone.
Not surprisingly, it worked. Quarterback Tony Romo averaged 9.25 YPA on those passes, compared to only 5.35 YPA on straight dropbacks. Since you don't need a running game for play-action to work, the Cowboys need to keep calling it, regardless of the opponent or their ability to get things going on the ground.
Utilize wide receiver Dez Bryant's size, especially in the red zone.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant stands 6'2", 222 pounds and has been one of the league's most efficient red-zone receivers during the course of his career.
Raiders cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter both check in below both 6'0" and 200 pounds. This isn't rocket science.
Give help to left tackle Tyron Smith.
Defensive end Lamarr Houston has rushed from the left side of Oakland's defense on just 4.7 percent of his pass snaps, according to PFF. That means he's going to see a whole lot of left tackle Tyron Smith.
Houston has been dominant this year, racking up 48 tackles, five sacks and 35 pressures. Only two 4-3 defensive ends in the entire league have pressured the quarterback more than Houston. Further, no defensive end has a higher tackle rate, so it's going to be a challenge for Smith in both the running and passing games.
To give you an idea of how well Houston has played, I charted his production up against defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and George Selvie.
Houston has pressured the quarterback more often than both Ware and Selvie (in terms of total pressures). He's also reached the passer at a higher rate than Selvie and one that's not all that far from Ware. If the Cowboys want to provide Romo with adequate time to throw, the first step is containing Houston.