Before the divisional round of the playoffs, Andy Benoit is giving a blueprint for the four underdogs to win on the road. Here’s his plan for the Cowboys in Los Angeles.
The last two quality zone defenses the Rams faced—Chicago in Week 14 and Philadelphia in Week 15—held Sean McVay’s high-powered offense to 6 and 23 points, respectively. The Rams reestablished some rhythm with steady, productive rushing performances against the lowly Cardinals and Niners in Weeks 16 and 17, but now they’re facing another quality zone defense.
Dallas’s D is not quite as stingy as Chicago’s, but overall, it’s better than Philly’s. DeMarcus Lawrence and a cadre of high-effort D-linemen make the pass rush just a tick or two behind Philly’s, but the speed of linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, and athletic physicality of perimeter corners Chidobe Awuzie and especially Byron Jones, make the back seven more formidable. Like Philly, the Cowboys employ a lot of Cover 3. What they don’t do, however, is play Cover 4, which is what gave L.A. problems down the stretch.
Los Angeles’s forte is putting linebackers in run-pass conflict and attacking them with intermediate in-breakers or deep crossing patterns. Jared Goff, a highly programmed timing-and-rhythm passer, is lethal when these designs work. Dallas’s linebackers all year have been supremely sharp at recognizing these sorts of throws (especially the deep crossers). Take those away and the Rams will have to rely on Todd Gurley in the outside zone running game and on backfield screens. That’s obviously not the worst option, but it’s one that tests McVay’s play-calling patience.
No team allowed more yards per rushing attempt than the Rams (5.1), whose aggressive, penetrating D-line and undersized linebacking unit tend to give up runs in 10-yard chunks. No offense is better at gaining those chunks than Dallas, whose main star, Ezekiel Elliott, won a rushing title despite missing a game and having just one run over 40 yards this season. With right guard Zack Martin healthy and left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo not (vulnerable rookie Connor Williams filled his place in the wild-card game against Seattle), the Cowboys can assume that Aaron Donald will align across from their diminished left side. The Rams did that when these teams met in Week 4 last year, and Donald ate then-starter Jonathan Cooper’s lunch.
This game will be decided on how controlling Dallas is on the ground. Long, sustainable drives with Elliott are achievable, and that keeps L.A.’s offense off the field. That Rams offense is at its best when its own ground game is humming, but when snaps are limited, the Rams in some contests have been a little quick to get away from the run.
Chance of an upset: 45 percent. The Rams are slightly more talented, better rested and playing at home.