The Lions ride a seven game win streak into Dallas to face the walking wounded Cowboys in an early season battle for playoff positioning. I know week 4 is way to early to talk playoffs, but so far these two teams are emerging as early season contenders. Both teams had big question marks about their quarterbacks that seem to have been answered the last few weeks, both teams are fresh off a physically draining divisional battle and both teams have elite young offenses with emerging young defenses.
The biggest difference at this point is the Lions’ young weapons are relatively healthy, while the Cowboys have health issues surrounding the majority of their weapons. As of today, Jerry Jones does not expect Miles Austin to play, while Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Felix Jones are all nursing significant injuries and will be limited on Sunday.
The Lions’ offense is clicking despite the struggling run game and a poor performance by the offensive line last week. The line will get another test when they face the Cowboys’ defense coached by Rob Ryan. Ryan uses multiple shifts and exotic blitz packages to force the offensive line to make mental mistakes and give defenders a free run at the quarterback. The scheme itself poses problems, but the Cowboys have elite talent in the front seven to complicate things further.
One of the more interesting chess matches in this game will be between Rob Ryan and Dominic Raiola. Raiola is one of the smartest centers in the league and has an excellent grasp of the blocking schemes. If he can keep the Lions in the right protection and eliminate and schematic edge the Cowboys have, it will go a long way in helping the Lions match up with the physical talent of the defense.
The best way to combat an aggressive pass rush is with screen passes, draws and quick throws that force the defense to slow their rush so they don’t run themselves out of the play. The quick strike passing game got the Lions back into the Viking game, but running out of the shotgun didn’t yield any results and the Vikings sniffed out most of the screens. The Cowboys will bring a lot of pressure because they are extremely weak in the secondary and know they can’t match up with the Lions’ receivers if Stafford has time in the pocket.
The Lions need to find a way to establish the run, which means they may have to get out of the shotgun and run some more traditional style running plays. They may start mixing Kieland Williams in more and more each week as he gets acclimated. The Lions’ inability to run helped the Vikings put the Lions in such a deep hole last week as they knew the Lions were going to pass early and often. They completely ignored any run defenses and went after Stafford with everything they had. Until the Lions establish the run, I am concerned that defenses will continue to load up against the pass and the Lions will have more three and outs and sacks since there is no running game to keep the defense honest.
The Lions’ defense couldn’t catch the Cowboys at a better time. With every skill position player banged up except Jason Witten, and with two rookies starting on the offensive line there is definitely blood in the water. There is an intimidation factor with the Lions’ defense and as tough as Tony Romo has been, you know he is aware of the Lions’ defensive front. Romo may not have either of his receivers in this game, and if they do play, they will be at far less than 100%. Lacking weapons and knowing one of the best defensive lines in the league is across from you is one thing, but throw in an inexperienced offensive line and a broken rib and I just think Romo will have a hard time.
While that could be in the Lions’ favor, it also could work against them as the Cowboys should turn to Felix Jones, Demarco Murray and Tashard Choice more. The Lions have done a solid job against the run overall, they have given up several big plays the last two weeks and they may be without Justin Durant who is recovering from a concussion.
On paper, the Lions win the matchup at every level on defense, defensive line vs offensive line, linebackers vs running backs and secondary vs receivers.
Both teams had big emotional wins against division foes last week and both teams have been buried with praise the last two weeks as well. The Cowboys for their toughness and ability to win games despite the injuries and the Lions for finally starting to turn the corner. So both teams have potential for a letdown game. Generally that favors the home team, but in my opinion the wild card in this game is who makes fewer mistakes. That is a common cliche, but look at the last two games for the Cowboys. They made several mistakes, but their opponents couldn’t take advantage of them. Same for the Lions last week, they made several mistakes but instead of making them pay for them, the Vikings cancelled out the advantage by making their own (often worse) mistakes.
Each defense has the ability to rush the quarterback and force turnovers. Each offensive line has question marks. That sets the stage for sacks, fumbles and interceptions and nothing kills drives and momentum like sacks and turnovers. Whichever team limits their mistakes and capitalizes on their opponents mistakes will have the edge in this game.
The Cowboys are banged up and the Lions own the league’s longest winning streak leading may people to pick the Lions. I am tempted, but the Vikings really exposed the Lions’ weaknesses by going after Stafford at all costs and ignoring the running game. The Vikings pinned their ears back and dared the Lions to run and they still couldn’t. The crowd became a factor as the Lions couldn’t sustain drives and the Vikings built an early lead. It is very plausible the same situation occurs on Sunday, except the Cowboys aren’t poorly coached and mentally soft like the Vikings and won’t cough up a lead so easily.
I think the Lions will hit a minor road block and the Cowboys rally past their injuries to hand the Lions their first loss of the 2011 season.