7 Keys to Victory in Dallas Cowboys' Week 3 Matchup
On paper, this looks to be a favorable matchup for Dallas considering the injuries to David Johnson and others, but the Cowboys have struggled with the Cardinals as of late. They've lost each of their last four contests against Arizona, with three of those games being on the road.
The Cardinals will provide some difficult matchups for the Cowboys because they can replicate the Broncos' defense strategy. The Cardinals have one of the best man-to-man cornerbacks in the NFL in Patrick Peterson and thrive on blitzing and takeaways.
On defense, the Cowboys could be without multiple cornerbacks, which could be worrying due to the Cardinals' downfield passing attack.
In last week's preview, we highlighted seven different keys for victory for the Cowboys against the Broncos. It's fair to think Dallas failed to do every single one.
This week, the keys are similar as the Cowboys will likely have the same game plan heading into this matchup; run the ball, limit big plays and play complementary football. Dallas knows how they want to win games. They just didn't execute well enough last week.
Without further ado, here are the Cowboys' seven biggest keys to victory against the Cardinals.
Get Pressure on Carson Palmer
First and foremost, if the Cowboys want to win this game, they will need to get pressure on the quarterback.
In Week 2, the Cowboys allowed Trevor Siemian to get far too comfortable early in the game and that allowed his confidence level to rise. Carson Palmer is similar in that way as he is a rhythm QB who doesn't do well when pressured.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, Palmer completed just two of eight passes when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Through two games, his passer rating is just 30.1 when under pressure, per the same source.
The Cardinals have had a bunch of injuries across their offensive line and the biggest has been left tackle D.J. Humphries, who missed the second game of the season with an MCL sprain. According to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, it's a one-to-two week injury that could sideline him once again. If he does miss this game, it's another spot the Cowboys need to take advantage of.
If the Cowboys can hit and force Palmer to get rid of the ball early, they should have no problem containing the Cardinals offense.
However, if they allow him to get comfortable and set his feet, Dallas could be in trouble, especially considering the state of their cornerbacks. Like last week, the result of the game will likely depend on Dallas' pass rush.
Protect Dak Prescott
In Week 1, the Cowboys kept quarterback Dak Prescott awfully clean. On 43 drop-backs, he was pressured just 10 times, according to Pro Football Focus.
Despite being somewhat inaccurate in that game, Prescott was able to enjoy a nice performance against one of the best pass rushes in the NFL.
But Week 2 was a totally different story for Prescott. The Broncos were able to rattle him by pressuring him 22 times in the game, per Pro Football Focus. According to the site, no other quarterback has been pressured more in a single game this season.
On Monday night, the Cardinals are going to blitz early and often in a bid to get to Prescott as the Broncos did. If they can penetrate the Cowboys' offensive line, Dallas' passing game could be throttled again.
If they can protect him and keep him upright, though, Dallas should be able to find matchups against their linebackers and safeties they can exploit.
Target Cornerback Justin Bethel
Like Denver, Arizona has one of the better pass defenses in the NFL. With the combination of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary, it's tough to throw on the Cardinals. In 2016, they allowed the fourth fewest passing yards per game, allowing just over 200 passing yards per game.
They are led on defense by Peterson, a six-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time All-Pro selection. He is one of the only receivers in the NFL who is a true matchup-cornerback and will likely spend his entire night following Dez Bryant.
While the Cowboys will likely pick their spots to attack Peterson, they would be wise to look elsewhere on passing plays.
The defender they need to target is cornerback Justin Bethel. According to Trey Cunningham of Pro Football Focus, he is one of five cornerbacks who has surrendered at least two touchdown receptions so far.
Whether Bethel matches up against Cole Beasley or Terrance Williams, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys' offense should look to attack him early and often. He's the team's weakest link on defense.
Make the Cardinals One-Dimensional
Despite being totally outmatched on defense, the Indianapolis Colts were able to make the Cardinals somewhat one-dimensional on Sunday.
Their running backs carried the ball 22 times for just 77 total yards (3.5 yards per carry). They forced the Cardinals to have to throw the ball and were able to tee-off on Carson Palmer on unfavorable down and distances.
The Cowboys were not able to do that against the Broncos last week. Denver ran the ball 39 times against Dallas and totaled 178 yards rushing in the contest. Their balanced offense kept the Cowboys on their heels and Dallas' defense paid the price.
If the Cowboys want to get pressure on Palmer as noted earlier, they will need to force him and the rest of the Cardinals' offense into long third downs.
The best way to do so is to stop their rushing attack. Without David Johnson, the Cardinals will likely turn to a combination of Chris Johnson, Kerwynn Williams, and Andre Ellington. None are overly impressive, but Johnson still has the speed to make defenses pay.
Palmer isn't as bad as the numbers or the media suggest, but if the Cowboys can make them abandon the run, they are much easier to stop.
If the Cardinals can establish any resemblance of a running game, though, don't be surprised if Palmer bounces back from a two-week slump at home in Arizona.
Don't Give Up the Big Plays
Arizona head coach Bruce Arians has always been a fan of throwing the ball deep down the field, no matter how porous the offensive line is.
Arians' team already has 11 passing plays over 20 yards this season, according to Pro Football Reference. They aren't afraid to throw the ball down the field and throw it often.
The Cowboys prides themselves in being a bend-but-don't-break defense. Even last week, Dallas only allowed two passes to go over 16 yards all game. They will allow teams to dink-and-dunk the ball up and down the field, but rarely do they get beat over the top.
Usually, teams don't have the patience or efficiency to make them pay for surrendering small chunks of yardage at a time.
This week, you can expect the Cardinals to dial up the deep shots. The player the Cowboys need to be most concerned about in terms of a deep threat is J.J. Nelson. He has already caught two passes over 30 yards this season and could have had even more if it weren't for a few silly drops.
His 4.28 40-yard dash time allows him to outrun nearly any cornerback in the entire league and with the Cowboys shuffling the deck at the position again this week, Nelson should get a few opportunities to create big plays in this contest.
A lot will rely on the safeties to make sure Palmer can't find Nelson deep, and they will be tested. How the Cowboys' defensive backs fare will likely determine who wins this game and goes on to a 2-1 record.
Convert on Third Downs
One of the reasons the Cowboys were so successful last season on offense was that they avoided getting to third down.
Despite their offense moving the ball up and down the field on defenses last year, they had the fourth fewest third-down plays in the entire league in 2016. They were gashing teams so bad through the air and on the ground that they often didn't need three plays.
However, when they got to third down, the Cowboys converted 42 percent of the time. That was good enough for 10th in the NFL.
Against the New York Giants in Week 1, the Cowboys picked right back up where they left off, converting on eight of 15 third-down attempts. But against the Denver Broncos, Dallas converted on just three of 14 attempts. That cannot happen if this team wants to be successful on the road.
Luckily for Dallas, Arizona has struggled to stop teams on third downs so far this season. Currently, teams are converting 47 percent of their third downs against the Cardinals. Even the Colts with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback were able to convert on eight of 18 third downs.
As long as Dallas can continue to convert on third downs around that 40 percent mark, they should have no problem putting up points in Arizona.
Win on Special Teams
Nearly every game has a big play or two on special teams that can change the final outcome.
In Week 1, it was the Cowboys consistently pinning the Giants inside their own 10-yard line on punts. For that reason alone, Chris Jones should have been awarded a game ball.
In Week 2, though, there were two plays that cost the Cowboys some momentum, thus allowing them to "lose" the special team facet of the game.
The first missed opportunity occurred after the Cowboys scored their first touchdown of the game. After Dallas tied the game 7-7, they kicked off to Denver and forced a fumble on the return. Miraculously, Cody Latimer somehow recovered his own error despite numerous Dallas players being around the ball.
If the Cowboys could have recovered the forced fumble, they would've already been in a scoring position ready to take the lead. Part of that is just luck and it will happen from time to time, but it's those type of plays that turn games. However, the next play proved to be much bigger.
Later on in that drive, the Cowboys held the Broncos to a 50-yard field-goal attempt which was eventually nullified due to a "leverage" penalty on DeMarcus Lawrence. Instead of holding the Broncos to just three points, the Broncos went on to score a touchdown and take a 14-7 lead. After the penalty, the Cowboys entire team looked deflated.
If the Cowboys can avoid making the "killer" mistake in their upcoming game against the Cardinals, they should be able to win the special teams battle. Dallas has significantly better kickers and should be able to contain Peterson in the return game. Once again, look for the team that wins the special teams phase to control the game.