The Dallas Cowboys are in need of a bounce back week here in week two as they prepare to play the Atlanta Falcons at noon central time in Arlington, TX. Though you don't want to proclaim a game in September a “must-win,” you also don't want to be 0-2 with a trip to Seattle on the horizon.
The Cowboys will have some deficiencies on both sides of the ball due to injuries, but still have the ability to win the game with some of the talent they have on the roster.
And with that, here are this week's three keys to the game.
1. Limiting the Edge Rusher Impact
We're only three years removed from that fateful day in Atlanta when Adrian Clayborn emerged from his journeyman status to look like an elite pass rusher. On that day Clayborn erupted for six sacks agains mostly Chaz Green with a little bit of Byron Bell filling in at left tackle in Tyron Smith's absence.
It was an absolutely terrible showing for both the offense and the offensive coordinator who failed to make any kind of adjustment to help his beleaguered backup tackle.
With the Atlanta Falcons coming to town for a pivotal NFC matchup, one can't help but feel a certain amount of dread knowing La'el Collins is still two weeks away and Tyron Smith is a game time decision. Can the Cowboys overcome their questions at tackle in this game to avoid starting 0-2?
How the Cowboys handle the edge rushers for the Atlanta Falcons will have the biggest impact on this game.
Kellen Moore has to provide some help in the form of a tight end or a running back to help slow down Takk McKinnley and John Cominsky. With Grady Jarrett patrolling the middle of the defensive line, the Cowboys can't afford to lose either matchup on the outside with the respect they'll have to pay to Jarrett.
Pressure impacts the passing game. Keeping Dak Prescott clean in the pocket is a must for the Cowboys offense to take off this week. Against an Atlanta Falcons offense that can put up a lot of points, Dallas has to take advantage of every drive and find a way to score points. They can't allow sacks or pressure to kill drives. So they need to keep the Atlanta edge rushers in check.
2. Limiting Big Plays
The wide receiver trio of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Russell Gage each went for more than 100 yards receiving in the Falcons week one loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They're an incredibly talented group led by one of the best wide receivers on the NFL in Julio Jones.
The Falcons will have success throwing the ball against anyone because Julio Jones is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. He always seems to have success against the Dallas Cowboys. All the Cowboys can hope to do is limit the damage when the Falcons do throw it.
In four games against the Dallas Cowboys, Julio Jones has 29 receptions on 43 targets for 468 yards and three touchdowns. He's averaged 16.4 yards per reception and just over ten yards per target. Calvin Ridley has continued to improve since coming into the league in 2018 and may be ready to take his own step into stardom.
The Cowboys will have to find a way to limit big plays in the passing game, because Matt Ryan and these receivers will find a way to have success. The Cowboys can't afford to allow the Falcons to hit chunk plays on a regular basis and hope to win the football game.
3. Sustaining and Ending Drives
Both the Cowboys offense and defense were inconsistent last week. The offense had a hard time early in the game and in the second half at extending their offensive possessions. The Cowboys were just 3 of 12 on their third downs. They have to be better than that this week. In order to be better on third down, they need to just avoid it altogether by staying aggressive with the passing game on first and second down.
Kellen Moore has to keep the offense out of second and third and long situations so that the Falcons pass rush can't focus solely on rushing the passer on those long down and distances.
The more efficient they are on early downs the better they'll be converting on third down.
The same can be said for the defense. If they can force the Falcons into some longer down and distances, it will allow the Cowboys defensive front to do what they do best and rush the passer. But in order to get into their strength on third down, they have to be better on first and second down.
The reason the LoS Angeles Rams were able to convert 9 of their 17 third down opportunities is because they were efficient on first and second down and put them into a favorable play calling position on third down.
The Cowboys defense, with the injuries they've sustained to Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, and Anthony Brown, can't afford to be on the field for lengthy drives by the Falcons this week.
The Cowboys must improve on third downs on both sides of the football if they want to be victorious against the Atlanta Falcons. They must be able to sustain drives on offense and get off the field on defense. The offense can't afford to settle for field goals this week against an explosive an Atlanta Falcons offense. Conversely, if the defense can force Atlanta to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, that should be considered a win for the defense.