7 Keys to Victory in Dallas Cowboys' Week 4 Matchup
With what is likely the toughest part of their schedule still to come and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers looming in Week 5, the Cowboys would love to jump out to a 3-1 record in the first month of the season.
However, standing in their way will be the highest-scoring offense in the league.
Led by second-year quarterback Jared Goff, this revamped Rams offense looks to play an uptempo style of football that has been the Achilles heel of Dallas under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
And with former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips manning the L.A. defense, this should be a fun one in Arlington, Texas.
If the Cowboys want to win this game and start the season hot with a 3-1 record, these are the seven keys to victory in Week 4.
Don't Let Aaron Donald Ruin the Game
First and foremost, for the Cowboys to win this matchup, they will have to find a way to neutralize defensive tackle Aaron Donald. However, that's much easier said than done.
Donald is a two-time All-Pro player and has been to the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons in the NFL. He's picked up where he left off and was dominant in Week 3, recording five pressures, three hurries and one sack, according to Pro Football Focus.
Aside from potentially destroying the Cowboys' passing attack, the 26-year-old can be a force in the run game as he has the ability to shoot gaps and blow up wide-zone rushing plays.
Dallas may be more equipped to handle him than most teams considering the talent in the interior of their offensive line, but there's just no realistic way to expect the Cowboys to shut him out for the entire game.
Dallas should try to double him as frequently as possible and dare other defenders to beat them. However, Donald is so good that even double-teams don't take him out of games.
If Dallas can control him and limit his impact on the game, they shouldn't have a problem moving the ball on this defense. But, as many teams have found out, taking Donald out of a game is easier said than done.
Expect the L.A. man to make his presence known early and often in this contest. How well the Cowboys handle him will likely determine the outcome of the game.
Run the Ball Efficiently
Despite getting the win on Monday night, the Cowboys did not run the ball particularly well, especially in the first half.
As a team, they ran for just 99 yards on 26 carries (3.8 yards per carry average). Ezekiel Elliott finished with just 80 yards on 22 carries, but most of his work came on two long runs that totaled 50 yards.
Elliott had six runs that failed to gain a single yard. In fact, he lost a total of 16 yards on four carries, per Pro Football Reference. That can't afford to happen on Sunday if the Cowboys want to keep the Rams defense on its heels.
The Los Angeles defense hasn't been strong against the run so far this season as it has given up 139 yards per game on the ground. In Week 2, it gave up 229 rushing yards to the Washington Redskins. Just like any game the Cowboys are in, they are going to want to establish the run early and often in this contest.
However, Dallas needs to be efficient when they decide to run the ball. The Cowboys ran on first and 10 and failed to get ahead of the chains too many times against the Cardinals. That will need to change soon if they want to be a truly balanced offense.
If the Cowboys can run the ball the way we are accustomed to seeing, they should have no problem moving it on the Rams defense.
Contain Todd Gurley
The Cowboys aren't the only team in this game with a stud running back, as Todd Gurley is starting to look like himself again.
On Thursday night, he racked up nearly 150 yards and three touchdowns as the Rams put up 41 points on the road in San Francisco. Gurley is a home run hitter at the running back position, but he also has the power to pound teams inside when given the chance to run against light boxes.
For Dallas to have success on defense, they will need to make the Rams offense one-dimensional so that their pass rush can tee off on Goff later on in drives.
While Goff has been much improved this season, he hasn't been great on 3rd and long. The Rams have converted just 3-19 on 3rd and 7 or longer this season, according to Pro Football Reference.
If the Cowboys can contain Gurley on early downs and force Goff to beat them on third downs, Dallas should be able to get off the field frequently.
The Rams want to play complementary football much like the Cowboys, so expect a heavy dose of Gurley in this game. How the Cowboys handle him in the run game will likely set the tone on defense.
Win on First Down
Once again, the Cowboys struggled to convert on third down on Monday night. The team finished just 2-9 on third down and their only two conversions occurred on 3rd and 1 and on 3rd and 3. Dallas has failed to convert on their last 10 3rd and 7s or longer.
While the Cowboys are struggling on third down, they can help themselves by improving on first down.
One way to do so is by throwing the ball more often on first down. The Cowboys ran on 17 of their 23 first-down plays against the Cardinals, according to Pro Football Reference. On the six occasions they threw the ball on first down, the team averaged a staggering 17.6 yards per play.
The Cowboys have had a reputation of being too predictable on first down this season as they have run Ezekiel Elliott into loaded boxes frequently. Dallas' star running back is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry on first down last year, as opposed to when he ran for 5.5 on first down last season, according to Pro Football Reference.
If the Cowboys decide to throw the ball more frequently on first down, the likelihood is they would be able to create bigger chunk plays and that would result in more manageable third downs. It also forces teams to back off the line of scrimmage, which means fewer defenders in the box.
Expect the Cowboys to be more aggressive at home this week early on downs.
Attack Cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Troy Hill
In last week's preview, Justin Bethel was the defender the Cowboys seemed most likely to target in the passing game. That held true as they avoided throwing at Patrick Peterson and instead hit Bethel.
Outside receivers Brice Butler and Terrance Williams had themselves a game as the two combined for five catches for 137 yards and a score on just six targets.
This week, Dallas will likely have a similar game plan as they look to avoid cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman, both of whom have had an interception on the year. The duo has yet to allow a score and under 300 yards passing this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, it's their third cornerback position that has struggled. Cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Troy Hill have been the two defenders teams have picked on as they try to avoid Johnson and Robey-Coleman. Safety Lamarcus Joyner has played in that role some, but he injured his hamstring in the last game and it's unknown if he will play on Sunday.
Expect this to be another game in which Dez Bryant receives a lot of attention from the Rams' No. 1 cornerback, Johnson.
As a result, this should be another contest in which Williams and Butler will need to make the lesser cornerbacks pay.
Rattle Jared Goff
Through three games, Jared Goff looks like a much different quarterback. He's been outstanding as he's thrown for five touchdowns and led the Rams to the highest-scoring offense in the league. He's completed more than 70 percent of his passes and has a passer rating over 118.
What's even more encouraging is how well he's handled pressure in the pocket this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the third-highest passer rating this season when under pressure (98.9), behind only Tom Brady and Alex Smith.
However, unlike the two quarterbacks ahead of him, he hasn't been sacked often this season. He has been sacked just three times when under pressure, while Brady and Smith have both reached double digits.
It won't be enough for the Cowboys to just pressure Goff; Dallas needs to get him to the ground frequently to truly test him. And with DeMarcus Lawrence likely matching up against Rob Havenstein, they should be able to generate some pass rush off the edge. The team should also be able to take advantage of one of the weaker interior offensive lines in football.
Whatever the game plan is on defense, the Cowboys cannot let Goff get comfortable in the pocket in the same way that Trevor Siemian did in Week 2.
Dallas could dial up more blitzes to try to get to Goff, but they will need to rattle him somehow if they want to slow down this suddenly elite offense.
Win the Special Teams Battle
Once again, the Cowboys will be facing one of the most dynamic return men in the NFL when they play Tavon Austin this weekend. Since 2013, he has returned three punts for touchdowns and changed the field position on countless others.
While Austin is a threat to taking it to the house every time he touches the ball, the Cowboys have to win in the punt game again this week.
Through three games, Cowboys punter Chris Jones has been one of the best in the league, pinning teams inside their own 20 on nearly 63 percent of his punts. They will need another solid game from their punt unit if they want to win the special teams' phase of the game.
As for the rest of the special teams unit, Dallas just needs to continue to keep the status quo. Dan Bailey has not missed a field goal this year and punt returner Ryan Switzer is becoming more comfortable with his role by the week.
The special teams' unit has been the most consistent part of the Cowboys so far and that will need to continue this week.