Three things to watch, plus a couple more, in the Cowboys-Cardinals Monday Night Football game:
1. The running game battle
Ezekiel Elliott ran nine times for eight yards in Week 2 at Denver, and the Cowboys’ offense was reduced to a shell of itself. This team is built around its rushing attack. Without it the Cowboys lose much of the play-action and rollout game that Dak Prescott runs so well, and they’re left fighting through their rudimentary aerial concepts, hoping receivers can make plays. So far, those receivers have not. Terrance Williams is a precise route-runner but only within the context of the play design. Defenses don’t pay him special attention. On the other side, Dez Bryant struggles to separate, which won’t change tonight against superstud corner Patrick Peterson. Bryant is at his best on downfield routes that come out of running formations. If the ground game isn’t rolling, those running formations aren’t used.
Dallas’s O-line is good enough to create zone-running lanes against any defense, but the Cardinals are not an easy one. They feature a lot of “reduced fronts,” with a nosetackle directly over the center and 3-technique defensive tackles clogging the B-gaps on both sides. These D-linemen are taught to penetrate. It’s a great formula against most ground games and a near-perfect one against an outside zone game like Dallas’s. In two outings, the Cardinals have given 82 and 76 yards rushing, respectively, against the Lions and Colts, and have averaged 2.82 yards per attempt through the first two games, which ranked fourth in the league through that time span.
2. The Justin Bethel factor
The sixth-year corner is the obvious weak link on what’s otherwise a fast and talented Cardinals defense. The problem is, the Cardinals are a matchup-based D, which makes Bethel easy to isolate. Cowboys receivers Brice Butler and Terrance Williams are both battling ankle injuries. Whoever has the best ankle of those two will have at least two or three deep shots dialed up for him on Monday night. Bethel tends to stay too flat in his initial off-coverage position, which can slow his transition out of his backpedal. The Cowboys will attack this.
3. Cardinals passing attack
Against Indianapolis last week the Cardinals lined up in a four-wide receiver set on 18 of 43 Carson Palmer dropbacks. This was going to be a staple package of theirs even before receiving back David Johnson went down. With him out, the Cardinals will do it even more. That’ll be especially true Monday night, given that Dallas’s secondary is young and without two of its top four corners, Nolan Carroll and Chidobe Awuzie. Look for the Cardinals to go four-wide, cluster the receivers together and run criss-crossing patterns off of it. They have a great opportunity to confuse and out-leverage Dallas’s zone defensive backs.
• Keep an eye on Cardinals first-round rookie linebacker Haason Reddick. He’s young and explosive, but he also looked very much like a rookie last week at Indy. You want to go right at Reddick and make him think, rather than away from him, where he can use his speed and react. Look for the Cowboys to direct their play-action his way.
• If Arizona’s passing game gets derailed by a schematically simple but improving Cowboys D, it will happen up front. This makeshift offensive line can’t pass-protect. Bruce Arians, in fact, may have to alter his system and use more six-man protections. (Arians prefers to block with five so that all five eligible receivers can get out in routes.) Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence was great in Weeks 1 and 2. He should be looking forward to facing offensive tackles Jared Veldheer and John Wetzel.
My editors are forcing me to be bold, so here goes: The Cowboys will sack Carson Palmer at least four times. Final: Dallas 24, Arizona 16.
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