The second of Saturday's two rounds of games, the match between the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys bears much resemblance to the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts.
Like the Chiefs, Rams jumped out to a big start this season behind a high-flying, marvelous near-unstoppable offense led by an inventive offensive trainer, sparkling quarterback games and weapons all over the pitch. Ramsen won, like the divisions, their division but not without a late season stumbling.
As colts, the cowboys began the season badly before they set fire to the middle of the year. Dallas was 3-5 at a time before he won seven eight games to finish the season with a fast-paced athletic defense and a handful of offensive stars who carried them to a number of tight wins.
As is the case in the previous matchup, the theory of the case for underdog road squad in this NFC division round game is that they should run the ball into one of NFL's lightest defensive fronts to control clock and keep the opposite off the field. And, as is the case with this game, the home favorites crime seems to have several benefits that would make the "run-to-win" strategy seem more than normal.
Of course, it's not always that simple. It often comes down to the specific matchups on the pitch. And it will probably be Saturday (8:1
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Rams 'play-action passes attacks against Cowboys' back seven defenders
Maybe no group of players have gained more honor this season than the second round of the Dallas Cowboys defense. Long rejected as the reason for a team with a potent punishment, could not take the next step, the Dallas defense was this season much better by the team's two entities. Cowboys finished the year seventh in yards allowed, sixth in permissible points and ninth in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders defensive DVOA.
Pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is the team's best defensive player, but the cowboys also had three second-level break stars. Cornerback Byron Jones, who moved back to the perimeter full-time this season after blending between corner and security for his first three NFL seasons, emerged as one of NFL's best cornerbacks in defense of defensive back coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard. Jones only allowed 0.79 meters per second. Snap in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, the third best brand among the 30 corners with at least 525 snaps in coverage. He was named another team All-Pro at the end of the season.
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Third-year-old lineback Jaylon Smith, who only played his second full season after the devastating knee injury he suffered during his last collegiate game, resumed damn near every brilliance that made him look like a lock to Be a top five pick in the 2016 draft before his injury. Smith broke out as one of the handful of best in linebackers in football, the rare inback who is a force against the race, in passport coverage and as a blitz where he was one of the best in the league.
And rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, after releasing his way into the lineup early, dumped a race at Defensive Rookie of the Year. Vander Esch ended the season with 140 tackles, seven passenger defenses and two interceptions, and he was so good that the cowboys had to take Sean Lee out of the lineup to keep him on the pitch. Keep in mind that the Dallas defense was damned close apart, each time Lee left the field in previous seasons – including last year.
Even players like second-year-old Chidobe Awuzie, who started opposite Jones, as well as third-year slot corner Anthony Brown and second-year security Xavier Woods, all came into their own this season and took massive leaps from where they were a year ago. (Woods was fantastic in the cover and posted similar numbers to players such as Eric Weddle and Lamarcus Joyner.)
However, one area where the entire rug 7 of the Dallas defense fought was against the play. Ethics from both Richard and Defense Coordinator Rod Marinelli must be as aggressive as possible in floating to the ball, and aggression helped the cowboy sport into one of the best possible defenses in the league. They went a bit for everything to stop the race on some occasions, and because they did, they got a 112.6 fit rating on the play action throws. That number placed 26 in the NFL.
And it just happens that this week's opponent, Los Angeles Rams, runs more play action than any team in the NFL. At the balance of the season, 34.6 percent of Jared Goff's cast of the play-action variety was per capita. PFF, the highest rate for any quarterback in the NFL. And Goff was the absolute dynamite on these throws, finishing 120 out of 197 for 1,971 yards, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 112.3 fit rating placed seventh in the league. However, Goff's play-action performance came with huge splits.
When we wrote for Eagles after Rams & # 39; Week 15, the teamsthat began with a game against Lions in week 13.
What Lions did against Rams that week when Bears and Eagles made it: they simply ignored all the bells and whistles that come with Rams' offensive play design, refusing to respond to the game's actions and bold McVay to run the ball or goff to complete short passes against soft zones and methodically ball down the downfield.
Goff has essentially gone from being better than Patrick Mahomes to being worse than Ryan Leaf. And it's not the only area of battle for him or Rams. Because teams no longer respond to play action as they used to, they can either sit back in a soft zone – helping to neutralize the crossroads that make up so much of the Rams' offense – or pin their ears back and comes after Goff – which has resulted in him being pressed much more often during the last three weeks than he was earlier this year.
The last two notes are also important: Cowboys play a lot of zone coverage under Marinelli and Richard, which help neutralize some of the crossroads. And Lawrence, Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins and Randy Gregory are getting stronger with the pressure on the front, giving Rams less time to let their game play games evolve. Goff held the ball more than 2.5 seconds before throwing 60 percent of his throw this season. PFF, the highest bet in the league. Against teams playing more man coverage, it just gives boys more time to open the spring. Against zones, it often gives more time to go after Goff himself.
It is often where play action comes in for Rams, as the round fakes sugar linebackers and safeties up the line and lets Goff fire pass in large windows across the middle. We saw exactly that this kind of thing happened last week when Russell Wilson went 9 out of 10 in 111 yards on the play action throws at Dallas. If Rams can find similar success on the throw after the faking race for Todd Gurley, it could be a long day for Dallas defense.
But if backers and safeties are left behind, let Gurley tear his 6-7-yard runs from time to time and cover Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and company, well they can have a hard time open with the kind of regularity they did early in the season.
Cowboys Offensive Line vs Aaron Donald's Game-Destructive Skills
There's not a single defender in the league that can destroy a game like Aaron Donald. The $ 135 million middle man is the most unbeatable player in the NFL, just as capable of beating defenders with a push to the inside or outside with speed or power, with technique or with athleticism. The numbers he had this year are straight out of a video game on the Rookie mode: 59 tackles, a league-high 25 of them for loss; 51 run stops, again the highest total in the league, per Pro Football Focus; 20.5 bags, one NFL best; and 106 prints (bags plus hits plus rushes), more than any other player in football. And all this as a interior lineman.
It's no more important task for the cowboys on Sunday than to figure out how to get their insult on the track while dealing with the possibility that Donald will completely destroy any plans they may have. Shock fight between Ram's defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his former assistant, Cowboy's main feature Jason Garrett, on where Donald lines up on pass player vs. run play will be fascinating to see unfold. Cowboys' inner linemen have widely different levels of skill and efficiency, and getting Donald lined up over the right player at the right time could be the key to closing Dallas & # 39; Ezekiel Elliott-led games and put sufficient pressure on Dak Prescott to make sure he holds the ball and get something to happen without schedule rather than delivering in rhythm.
The two starters we know of Dallas are real guardian Zack Martin and center Joe Looney. Martin played a bit up last week, but was great and he is one of the very best linemen – at any position – throughout football. He made his fifth straight Pro Bowl and All-Pro team this season and he has been in the league for five years. Looney was solid if it was no coincidence to fill the star center Travis Frederick this year, but of course he is not at either Frederiks or Martin's level. We do not yet know who will start the left watch for the cowboys, but whether it is rookie Connor Williams or veteran Xavier Su & # 39; a-Filo, the player will be the weakest of Dallas inner trio and no fight for Donald.
If the frames had their way, they would probably play the Donald up line in front of Martin on each race and in front of either Looney or Williams or Su-Filo when the cowboys pass. Donald is least likely for Rams & # 39; defense defenders to be blown by the Martin by the ball, and if he is able to twist the star guard inside, it could go a long way to slow down the Dallas run game, which is It is best when it runs to either side of Martin. (This is probably Rams' only hope of slowing down Dallas rushing the attack. Cowboys are bound to run the ball and Rams has a terrible race defense. It will either take Rams jump to a big lead or Donald just ruin the game for). getting the cowboys to shift the focus to the pass.)