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Cup of Joe: Cowboys defense graduates from checkers to chess

Here's what the talented and stifling Cowboys defense will have to avoid in a stiff test against the LA Rams explosive offense in the their divisional round playoff game.
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FRISCO, Texas — The Cowboys look to reach the NFC title game for the first time in 23 years and win their first road game in 26 when they take on the LA Rams in their divisional round playoff game Saturday night at 7:15pm. While you're downing that cup of coffee this morning, check out Joe Trahan's insights in this week's edition of "Cup of Joe."

Cowboys defense: checkers vs chess

The test will be much more difficult for the Cowboys this week. Instead of checkers they’ll have to be prepared for a game of chess.

In their playoff opener, Seattle’s offense played right into the Cowboys hands. The Seahawks top-ranked rushing attack was hell-bent on running the ball because that’s what got them to the playoffs. The Cowboys defense, ranked 5th best in the NFL against the run, had no problems shutting down Seattle. They limited a team that averaged 160 yards/game on the ground to just 73. That allowed them to make life tough on Russell Wilson and control the game.

Offensive mastermind Sean McVay will make the task anything but straight forward this week, though. Instead of seek and destroy, and playing downhill like they did against Seattle, the Cowboys will have to decode and defend. They’ll have to sift through all the window dressing and misdirection to decipher the Rams offensive scheme. Here’s what to look for: the Cowboys defense needs to avoid giving up a big play early that could create doubt. The Cowboys defense is at it’s best when they’re flying around. Taking a big hit early could slow them down and cause issues.

Credit: Getty Images
ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 01: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at AT&T Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Make “5.1" Matter

I couldn’t believe this stat when I saw it this week, but the LA Rams are ranked dead last in the NFL in yard per rushing attempt allowed. They give up 5.1 yards/attempt. With soon to be named defensive player of the year Aaron Donald patrolling the middle of the Rams defensive line along with Ndamukong Suh, the stat doesn’t make sense, but the Cowboys have to make sure it’s of significance in this game.

We all know the Cowboys clock-chewing, punishing ground game is essential for their winning formula. And playing keep-away from the Rams explosive offense couldn’t be more important. Make “5.1” matter and the Cowboys have a much better shot to pull off the upset.

Give Dak’s "clutch gene" a shot

Belief is a powerful thing, especially in a professional locker room. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has some warts in his game, but none of them seem to show up in the game’s biggest moments. Whatever issues you may have with the third-year signal caller, Prescott’s fourth-quarter prowess can’t be questioned. Of the Cowboys 17 games this season, 13 have been decided by 8 points or less. The Cowboys are 10-3 in those games.

There is something about the crucible of close games that brings out the best in Prescott, and we’ve seen it time and time again this season. The numbers bear it out: in the 4th quarter within 7 points Prescott’s QB rating spikes to 105.9. His clutch gene is dominant, not recessive. Now the Cowboys mission is to get this game to the fourth quarter and keep it close, to give "clutch Dak" a chance to do his thing.

Credit: Getty Images
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 05: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys dives but falls short of the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter during the Wild Card Round at AT&T Stadium on January 05, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Who wins?

The Cowboys have been on a roll, but the Rams are a different animal. The Cowboys must avoid getting down early.

If they do, and the defense gets after Jared Goff to force a turnover I believe the Cowboys will win 31-27.