There are no must-win games in week four of an NFL season. Especially for the Dallas Cowboys, who sit 1-2, but are tied for first place in the NFC East with the Washington Football Team, there is far too much football left in the season to call this a “must-win.” However, as the season moves along, wins will be harder to come by, and the Cowboys need to start putting wins together and taking advantage of the position they've been put in with the Philadelphia Eagles sitting at 0-3.
Every game comes down to how a team's players respond to the individual matchups they face. For the Cowboys to come out on top this week, they'll need to win or at least force a stalemate in these three matchups.
Let's take a look.
1. Jarvis Landry vs. Jourdan Lewis
The Dallas Cowboys have problems in the secondary because of the injuries they've suffered to Anthony brown and Chidobe Awuzie. They've been stretched thin and have been taken advantage of in the first three weeks of the season. With Daryl Worley and Trevon Diggs on the outside, Jourdan Lewis is the primary slot cornerback. This week he draws the unfortunate task of attempting to guard Cleveland Browns' wide receiver, Jarvis Landry.
Landry comes into the game having caught every pass thrown his way when lined up in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. Nine of his 12 receptions on the season have come from the slot where he lines up 62.2% of the time.
Per PFF, Jourdan Lewis has done a pretty solid job in coverage when lined up in the slot. Among players with at least 20 slot coverage snaps, Jourdan Lewis' passer rating allowed ranks fourth in the NFL at 57.6. He's allowed the fewest targets and receptions allowed per snap in slot coverage in the NFL.
The Cowboys need Jourdan Lewis to keep Jarvis Landry from being an easy target for Baker Mayfield to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Mayfield's held the ball longer than anyone in the NFL this season per Next Gen Stats at 3.23 seconds per throw. Jourdan Lewis needs to hold up early and often against one of the best slot wide receivers in the NFL.
2. Dallas Cowboys Offensive Tackles vs. Myles Garrett
On Sunday, the Cowboys will face arguably the best edge rusher they have all season in Cleveland Browns EDGE, Myles Garrett. Per Pro Football Focus, Garrett leads the NFL in total pressures through the first three weeks of the season with 19 and has received their highest pass-rush grade thus far.
Garrett plays mostly on the left side of the defensive line and line up on the right. That means Brandon Knight will get a heavy dose of Myles Garrett on Sunday. The former number one overall pick is tied for second in the NFL with three sacks on the season.
Brandon Knight has been good this season, but the Cowboys haven't faced an edge rusher as talented as Garrett. The best defensive linemen the Cowboys have met through the first three weeks of the season have been primarily defensive tackles in Aaron Donald, Grady Jarrett, and Jarran Reed. This time, it will be the tackles that have to step up and slow down Cleveland's premier pass rusher.
3. Austin Hooper vs. Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas
Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas have struggled against the pass in 2020. Combined, they've allowed 24 receptions on 31 targets for 306 yards receiving and two touchdowns (both attributed to Thomas). While Thomas has been really good against the run in 2020, he's allowed the second-highest passer rating against among linebackers with at least 75 coverage snaps at 139.6. Smith hasn't fared much better, sitting 11th in league with a passer rating allowed of 113.
Jaylon Smith's 1.74 yards per coverage snap allowed is the second-highest in the NFL per Pro Football Focus, while Joe Thomas is 15th in the league at 1.19 yards per coverage snap allowed. Teams have figured out that they can attack the Dallas Cowboys linebackers in coverage, and let's be real, they can attack the Dallas Cowboys coverage at every level of the defense. Nobody has played well.
The reason this matchup will be critical, however, is the attention that will be paid to Cleveland's other offensive weapons. While the Cowboys are forced to respect Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in the passing game and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (if he plays) in the running game, there's an opportunity for Austin Hooper to be a forgotten man by the Cowboys defense.
Hooper hasn't been great to start the 2020 season, only catching seven passes on ten targets for 62 yards, but he's a player that can win in the passing game if given a chance. In two career games against the Dallas Cowboys, Hooper has ten receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown. It's unlikely he's going to beat you downfield, but he's a player that can make you pay if you let him run free. In the quick passing game in the short area of the field, Hooper can be very useful. And that's the area where the Cowboys linebackers have struggled.
If Jaylon Smith or Joe Thomas are called upon to cover Hooper in man coverage, or even when Hooper saunters into their zone, they have to play better than they have through the first three games of the season.
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There are other matchups that the Dallas Cowboys will have to win to come out victorious for the second time in 2020. And yet, how these three matchups go will likely determine the outcome of the football game. The Cowboys can't afford to get beat by Jarvis Landry or Austin Hooper in the passing game. On offense, they have to find a way to slow Myles Garrett down on the pass rush, so Quarterback Dak Prescott can take advantage of a not-so-good Cleveland Browns secondary.