Initial Thoughts

Last week the Dallas Cowboys visited their old rivals from Jersey. The New York Giants’ season is an unmitigated disaster by any measurement. They had several reasons we discussed to be energized and to give Dallas all it could handle. After three and a half quarters, it appeared as if that was exactly what they were doing. The reality is that the Cowboys played down to an inferior opponent. With their backs against the wall, Dallas executed to their abilities and put the Giants away. After two big wins over dysfunctional division rivals, the Cowboys travel to the “Black Hole” to face the equally dysfunctional Oakland Raiders. With their playoff goal barely on life support, Dallas needs to muster one more win before they get Ezekiel Elliot back from his suspension.

Across the field from them, the Raiders have been even more of a disappointment as they have fallen apart without the excuse of major injuries or suspensions. They fired their defensive coordinator with no real improvement, and their stars on both sides of the ball have underperformed compared to preseason expectations. The Cowboys staved off elimination for another week with their win at Met Life stadium. The Raiders, however, are not the Giants. They have better weapons on both sides of the ball. They are relatively healthy at this point in the season. In fact, if both teams play to their perceived potential, Oakland should win this game. Dallas must play with the knowledge that they can easily lose this game to the Raiders if they do not come into this game focus and great game plan in all three phases of the game. 

With that in mind, let’s look at how these teams compare by position. Today we will check out the offensive units, with a comparison of the defenses and special teams coming next.

Quarterback

This time last season Derek Carr was a potential MVP candidate and the quarterback of the hottest team in the AFC. Fast forward to today and the player on tape looks nothing like a confident or competent NFL starter, much less a rising star. It may be that he hasn’t fully recovered from the injury he sustained at the end of the 2016 season. However, his issues appear to be more mental than physical. He is not processing information as effectively on a down to down basis. His mechanics have been uneven, and his ability to push the ball down the field has mostly disappeared. Many observers saw Carr as one of the bright young stars to lead the next generation of great quarterbacks as Brady, Brees, and Roethlisberger wind down.

Dak Prescott has shown tremendous growth over the past two weeks in dealing with increased responsibilities he’s had to shoulder with Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. He has continuously found ways to beat pressure, and he has dramatically improved his accuracy. It is vital that Prescott continues his improved play if Dallas is going to win this game in Oakland. Carr and Prescott are both young quarterbacks with teams that have talented skill position players around them.  Both have good movement in the pocket, but Prescott has an extra ability that allows him to also pick up big yards with his legs. With Carr’s struggles and Prescott heating up, this is an…

Advantage: Cowboys

Running back

Alfred Morris has been good over the past four games, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and showing the NFL that he is still a quality starter. Rod Smith has given the Dallas rushing attack a significant boost with hard running, good pass blocking and solid receiving. This past Sunday was a coming out party for Smith and allowed him to showcase his abilities in a multitude of ways. They are not Zeke, but they have provided the Cowboys with a strong enough running game to allow Prescott’s skill as a play-action passer to shine through. Their combined abilities give the Cowboys a potent balanced attack on offense.

Marshawn Lynch is simply a terror to take down. His running style is known for the power to break tackles and move the chains when his blocking is subpar. He is also very nimble for a man his size and, with his excellent vision, he can find the creases to make defenses pay dearly for missed assignments. Jalen Richard and Deandre Washington are solid in their change-of-pace roles and can provide the Raiders with speed and receiving ability out of the backfield. If Elliott was playing, this would be a no-brainer in the Cowboys’ favor. Without him, this is still a very slight…

Advantage: Cowboys

 

Wide Receiver

When Michael Crabtree is not getting his manhood snatched off his neck by Aqib Talib, he is still a very good NFL receiver. He is a strong route runner and an effective red-zone threat. Amari Cooper is the most talented receiver for Oakland, but he has had a disappointing year. Cooper has struggled with drops and just disappearing at times. He has also fought through an injured ankle. Unfortunately for the Raiders, it appears that ankle will force him to sit out this game. The rest of the Oakland receiving corps is made up of underperforming high picks (Cordarelle Patterson) and undrafted free agents (Seth Roberts, Johnny Horton). Crabtree is a top-notch number two wideout, but the rest of this pack is underwhelming without Cooper as their lead dog.

Dez Bryant’s game against the Giants was a microcosm of his season. He’s had mind-numbing drops mixed with spectacular plays. He has been mostly healthy, so it has caused many observers to wonder if he will ever reach the heights of his 2012-2014 seasons. Watching the games makes it clear that Bryant can still draw double teams. Many are questioning whether he can still beat those double teams. Williams is a solid player and can make a spectacular play for the team every now & then. Cole Beasley has been the target of extra defensive attention because of his success in 2016. He has not been able to beat that extra attention. With Cooper unavailable to play, this is a massive…

Advantage: Cowboys

 

Tight End

Jason Witten is still chugging along in year 15. He isn’t threatening defenses down the field like he used to, but he is a crafty receiver that can get open quickly. His age is also showing in his inability to consistently make his blocks at the point-of-attack. We should enjoy him for his great career as long he chooses to play, but he is no longer a top-tier tight end. Last week there was a James Hanna sighting as he was able to make a critical catch in the second quarter to keep a Dallas drive moving. The Cowboys are using multiple tight end sets to create favorable matchups in the running game, and it has been paying off over the past two wins. This group has a pedigree with Witten but is only average on the field.

All of Cowboys Nation knows who Jared Cook is. His name conjures up the painful memory of how the team’s 2016 season came to a devastating end. He is a solid pass catcher and he has made a reliable connection with David Carr in his first season in the Bay area. Journeyman Lee Smith was a free agent acquisition from Buffalo and has been solid for Oakland thus far. He is a good blocking tight end and has provided Carr with a reliable outlet receiver over the middle. He makes the Oakland two tight end set an effective run blocking unit. Cook’s downfield pass catching ability makes this a slight …

Advantage: Raiders

 

Offensive Line

The Raiders offensive line has been one of the few groups that could be spoken of at the same level as the Dallas line for the past two to three seasons. In fact, some observers believe the Oakland group has been better at pass blocking than even Dallas. They are having some similar issues as Dallas in integrating a new member (Marshall Newhouse) into their group. They also had some cohesion issues with Donald Penn holding out at the start of the season. The struggles of this group don’t detract from the fact that it is still one of the top offensive line groups in the entire league. They are big and nasty, and they get great movement in the run game. There has been a little fall off in the pass blocking proficiency. Which seems to be due to the personnel changes but overall this a quality unit.

The Cowboys offensive line has gelled over the past couple of weeks as Tyron Smith has gotten healthier. Their performance is starting to resemble the dominance of 2016 over the last two divisional games. La’el Collins is growing into a good right tackle and Jonathan Cooper has been solid in between two all-pros.  The run blocking has been consistent, and now the pass blocking is getting much better. Prescott has been able to stand in the pocket and deliver passes on time. It has dramatically improved the overall performance of the offense. Both lines are good groups that are difference makers for their respective offenses. This is a close call but the fall off from the Oakland line has been a little more pronounced than the Dallas group, so this is a very slight…

Advantage: Cowboys

 

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