The Cowboys undoubtedly face their toughest challenge on Sunday when they host the 2-2 Cincinnati Bengals. On the contrary, it’s not the Bengals record that makes them Dallas’ worthiest foe to date.
The Cowboys have benefited from one of the league’s easiest schedules thus far. The New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, and San Francisco 49ers are a combined 6-12, with Washington qualifying as the highest ranked -- just 14th best in the NFL -- of that quartet in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings. Cincinnati, however, ranks 12th in DVOA, including No. 7 in Defensive DVOA.
It’s no secret how Dallas has moved the ball on offense. The Cowboys currently rank first-overall in rushing attempts (140), second in rushing yards (596), and first in rushing touchdowns (eight). Unfortunately, Dallas’ stylistic approach on the ground meets an immovable force Sunday.
Excluding Cincinnati’s matchup against the four-headed machination of Miami’s backfield last week, the Bengals limited Matt Forte, DeAngelo Williams, and C.J. Anderson to a combined 227 yards on 68 carries (3.3 yards per attempt) through Week 4. They’ve also allowed only three rushing touchdowns on the season.
If the Cowboys fail to create the type of holes they made for Ezekiel Elliott to run through in Week 4, they’ll likely look to lean on their next largest asset: Cole Beasley. Laugh if you must, but their offense continues to have a relatively high floor due in part to No. 11’s contributions each and every week.
Dallas, for instance, has picked up 79 first downs this season. Beasley remains responsible for 13 of those, the most among their receivers (and, in turn, five more than Dez Bryant). He’s also accounted for 27.5 percent of Dak Prescott’s passing yards, as shown by Beasley’s team-high 279 receiving yards. Therein lies the issue. Whether the Cowboys find it viable to move the ball on the ground this Sunday, it seems unlikely for Beasley to continue finding success.
The Bengals have suffocated slot receivers (Beasley’s position) this season, allowing two catches and 37 yards to Eric Decker in Week 1; limiting Eli Rogers to one catch (and nine yards) in Week 2; allowing a total of two receptions for 23 yards to Bennie Fowler and Cody Latimer in Week 3; and, in their most daunting matchup to date, holding Jarvis Landry to 61 yards on 10 targets in Week 4. Needless to say, the Cowboys will have to look elsewhere in order to move the chains.
Where those yards come from is currently unknown. With Bryant questionable to play for the second consecutive week, Dallas will have to look to Terrance Williams and Brice Butler more. Prescott has also averaged 9.8 yards per play-action, clearly having yet to utilize the deep ball when faking a handoff. It could be time to pull that rabbit of the hat on Sunday.
Whatever the case, Dallas’ two cogs are in store for a rough outing. How they choose to play offense beyond those two will tell a lot about this team moving forward.
Be sure to follow John on Twitter @notJDaigle.