DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys will finally be back to playing football this coming Sunday night. After an off-season that went off book, Dallas will travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams in the opener.
Los Angeles happens to also be the scene where it all started for quarterback Dak Prescott. His first-ever preseason action as a rookie came in the Rams’ first game back in Los Angeles. Prescott put the league on notice in that game at LA Memorial Coliseum. Fast forward five years and the four-year veteran signal calling will be making the first start at the new home of the Rams, Sofi Stadium.
The Cowboys are opening up the season on the road as three-point favorites. Here is a look at what they’ll need to do to walk away with a win in new head coach Mike McCarthy’s debut with Dallas:
Protecting Dak Prescott
One of the big worries heading into Week 1 is the protection in front of Prescott. The Cowboys will begin the post-Travis Frederick era after his retirement following last season. Joe Looney is set to take over as the starter at center, much like he did in 2018 when Frederick missed the season while battling Guillain-Barré syndrome. That season, without Travis, Prescott was sacked 56 times. That equates to 9.6% of plays when he attempted a pass.
Last year, with Frederick back in the lineup, that number dropped significantly. The sack percentage was 3.7% and Prescott was dropped just 23 times overall, second-fewest in the league. The Cowboys need to prevent that type of drop off again. This time coach Joe Philbin is in charge of the offensive line, so he could make quite the difference.
The Cowboys will also be playing without La’el Collins on the right side of the line. He will be replaced by Cameron Erving for at least the first three weeks of the season.
Erving made eight starts last year for the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Dallas will likely still need to chip over and give him help throughout the game. Good news for him that an All-Pro guard in Zack Martin will be playing to his left.
Get to Jared Goff
Last year in this matchup, the Cowboys were only able to get to Goff twice on 53 pass attempts. While Dallas was good at preventing sacks, Los Angeles was even better. Goff was only tackled behind the line 22 times in 2019.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys need to have a better win rate against the Rams’ offensive line this time around. The team believes that it has a much better pass rush heading into the 2020 season, so this will be a good matchup to see how far they’ve come.
Goff will have to worry about a fresh DeMarcus Lawrence coming off the right side of the line, while Aldon Smith will be roaming from the left side in his first action since the 2015 season. While they have him listed as a backup, expect to see plenty of free-agent signee Everson Griffin opposite Lawrence on obvious passing downs.
The Cowboys will need to be able to create an organic pass rush from their retooled defensive line. Last year, when they were able to bring Goff to the ground, it came on blitzes by Sean Lee and Jourdan Lewis.
One thing that should help is the Cowboys are also expected to be better up the middle with some offseason additions at defensive tackle. Dontari Poe was brought to Dallas to team with veteran incumbent Antwaun Woods. Trysten Hill seems to have had a much better camp in his second year and Neville Gallimore is right behind him as a rookie.
If the Cowboys can create pressure from the front four, that will allow the back seven to fly to the ball and make stops. Plus, if the defensive line is doing their job, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could use linebacker Jaylon Smith in a myriad of ways on Sunday night. Look for Smith to have more freedom playing in space or as a stand-up pass rusher off the edge.
Get CeeDee Lamb involved
With the dawning of the NFL season, it is finally time to release the hounds. We have heard all about Lamb in practice during his first NFL training camp. We’ve seen the videos and highlights from his college days. Now is the time to put that new toy to use.
The Cowboys need to get their first-round WR involved in the punt return game and on offense. Despite having both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup on the outside, getting Lamb looks early and often will only open up the options for Prescott.
Cooper is nursing a hamstring injury, but he still intends to play on Sunday. If Dallas’ No. 1 receiver isn’t 100%, the slack should be picked up by Gallup and Lamb.
With Los Angeles All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey set to shadow Cooper, Lamb could be an X-factor if Dallas works him into the offense. Knowing that Lamb is still a threat could also alleviate pressure on Cooper to be the main target in a situation that was often unfavorable to him last season. If CeeDee can get loose in his debut, there should be plenty of TDs for Dallas.
Week 1 Prediction
The Dallas Cowboys start the 2020 season on the right foot as McCarthy leads his new team to a 38-24 victory in the first-ever game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA.
How do you see the season opener going for the Cowboys? Share your predictions with Patrick on Twitter @PatSportsGuy.