It's an in-state battle featuring the most popular sports franchise in North American sports, the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans. While the Dallas Cowboys haven't played for a chance to win Lombardi Trophy number six, the Houston Texans haven't found much success either since their inception in 2002. Though they may have much different histories, the level of success each has attained since the turn of the millennium is eerily similar. The Dallas Cowboys haven't reached the NFC Championship Game since the last time they won a Super Bowl after the 1995 season. The Houston Texans haven't reached an AFC Championship Game in their 16 year history heading into 2018.
Both teams came into the 2018 season with high expectations, and yet, both have floundered in the first month of the season. The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a win that evened their record at 2-2 when they beat the Detroit Lions on a last second field goal attempt by rookie Kicker Brett Maher. Similarly, the Houston Texans won their matchup with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday with a game winning field goal in overtime. For the Texans, however, it was their first win of the season.
After just four games, the expectations for these two Texas clubs have dropped off considerably as neither is seen as a playoff contender at this point in the season.
A win on Sunday could catapult either team toward a run at playoff contention.
This is only the fourth regular season meeting between Texas' two NFL teams. The Dallas Cowboys hold an all-time edge in the series, 3-1, winning the last three meetings after the Houston Texans beat the Cowboys in their first game as a franchise back in 2002.
In the two games with Jason Garrett as either the offensive coordinator (2010) or head coach (2014), the Dallas Cowboys averaged 23.5 points per game on offense. The 2010 game would be the only win that former Head Coach Wade Phillips would record in that season before being fired after losing six straight.
Check out Inside The Star Staff Writer Kevin Brady's Cowboys vs Texans Betting Trends for more historical data heading into the week five matchup.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Over Deshaun Watson's last nine games, he's averaged 302 passing yards, thrown 2.77 passing touchdowns, while completing 62% of his passes. If you were to stretch that pace out over the course of a 16 game season those numbers would look like this: 4,832 yards passing, 44 passing touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
No quarterback who has dropped back to pass at least 100 times has been pressured as often as Watson's 47.3% pressured rate. So nearly every other time that Deshaun Watson drops back to pass, he's pressured. Only Buffalo Bills rookie Quarterback Josh Allen's been sacked more times than Watson's 17. That should bode well for DeMarcus Lawrence and company.
Though Watson's been under pressure a lot, it doesn't always phase him as he has the ninth highest passer rating in the NFL when under pressure at 82.1.
Through the first four games of the 2018 season, Watson's throwing on average an interception per game. In his 11 game career, he's thrown 12 interceptions. Sounds like a good week for the Dallas Cowboys to get their first interception.
In looking at his passing charts through four weeks as provided by Pro Football Focus, the majority of his success has come throwing to the middle of the field. He's had a lot of success throwing to the deep middle, which could be where the Houston Texans try to exploit the Dallas Cowboys defense. Last week, against the Indianapolis Colts, Watson was able to win for big gains down the right side of the field and unless Kris Richard and the Dallas secondary can rebound on that side of the field, it could be another area of weakness for the Cowboys defense.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott had his best game of the season last week against the Detroit Lions. He three for 255 yards while completing 63% of his passes for two touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating of 118.6.
More importantly, for the first time in a long time, Prescott looked poised and confident completing several big passes down the sidelines; one to rookie Michael Gallup early in the game and the clincher to Ezekiel Elliott on the fourth quarter drive that set up the game winning field goal.
On passes 10 or more yards down the field, Prescott was 5/8 for 115 yards and a touchdown. That doesn't include the big catch and run on the screen play to Ezekiel Elliott.
Prescott looked like the quarterback we saw through his first 24 games. If he can keep up this play, he will silence all the doubters in route to a big-time contract in the 2019 offseason.
The Running Game
The Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys have reasserted themselves as one of the best running games in the NFL after four games. Elliott leads the league in rushing by nearly 100 yards. He leads the league in yards after contact and is third in the NFL in yards after contact per attempt.
Elliott also ranks third in the NFL in breakaway percentage, with 50.7% of his runs going for 15 yards or more, per Pro Football Focus. Elliott has the most runs of 15 yards or more this season with 10. The next closest are Matt Breida of the San Francisco 49ers and Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers -- still weird typing that -- with six.
The Houston Texans
Lamar Miller is leading the Texans in rushing with 225 yards this season, which is 14th in the NFL. His 3.9 yards per attempts is also 14th in the NFL and he hasn't scored a touchdown this season. In yards after contact per attempt, Miller ranks 24th.
Alfred Blue has been slightly better than Miller in fewer attempts this season. He has a better yards per attempt, a better yards after contact per attempt, and has scored the only rushing touchdown by a running back for the Texans in 2018.
The Wide Receivers
The Houston Texans
If there is a place that the Texans have the most sizeable advantage it's in the weapons they have on the outside. The Texans are able to roll out DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Bruce Ellington, and Keke Coutee when they go to 11 and 10 personnel groupings and all four of those guys could be starters or have sizeable roles for the Dallas Cowboys.
DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Yes, he's up there with Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. He's finally getting to play with a good quarterback and you can see how that's helping him. He's fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and has two touchdown receptions on the season. DeAndre Hopkins may find himself matched up against Anthony Brown on Sunday since he lines up in the slot on nearly a quarter of his snaps.
Fellow wide receiver, Will Fuller, is tied for fourth in the NFL with three touchdown receptions and has 263 yards receiving this season.
Both Hopkins and Fuller are averaging more than 14 yards per reception.
Keke Coutee broke out in week four, recording all 11 receptions he has on the season for 109 yards including 96 yards after catch. He's going to be an assignment that could give the linebackers trouble underneath on Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys
Aside from Cole Beasley, the Dallas Cowboys haven't really received -- pun intended -- consistent production from their wide receiver group. Beasley's leading the team in yards and receptions. Only Ezekiel Elliott and Geoff Swaim have at least 10 receptions on the season and more than 100 receiving yards. That's how sparse the WR production has been.
Michael Gallup showed up in a big way on Sunday vs the Detroit Lions when he came up with a big play in the first quarter, but his 41.7% reception rate is the lowest on the Dallas Cowboys.
Tavon Austin has been an X-Factor with his ability to run the jet sweep and get down field on "go" routes, but his playing time hasn't been nearly enough. The coaching staff is limiting how much of an impact he can have on the game by keeping him off the field. His snap count continues to trend in the right direction. Sunday's 25% snap share was higher than any other game Tavon's played this season.
Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns have had some solid moments. Thompson is second on the team in first down receptions, but hasn't provided much else. Hurns has been a disappointment. He had a drop on what would have been a crucial first down reception on Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys are ranked higher than the Houston Texans in most defensive categories heading into week five.
Where the Houston Texans defense has been better is against the run and in forcing turnovers. The Texans have forced five turnovers in the first four games, while the Dallas Cowboys have forced two.
Against the run, the Texans are allowing only 3.5 yards per attempt. The Cowboys are allowing 3.6 yards per attempt. Both are top five in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys pass defense is seventh in passing yards against, 10th in passing TDs allowed, and is third in sacks. The Houston Texans have allowed the sixth most passing yards, third most passing touchdowns, and are tied for ninth in the NFL in sacks. The Texans have only intercepted one pass in the 2018 season.
Both the Texans and the Cowboys are allowing opposing offenses to convert on third down at just over 44% of the time.
Opposing offenses are coming away with points on trips to the red zone 78.6% of the time against the Texans compared to 54.5% of the time against the Dallas Cowboys.
Brett Maher, Dallas Cowboys
- 8/9 on field goal attempts, including 1/1 on attempts greater than 50 yards, and a game winning field goal, and 5/5 on extra point attempts.
Ka'imi Fairbairn, Houston Texans
- 9/11 on field goal attempts, 1/3 on attempts greater than 50 yards, and has a game winning field goal in overtime, and is 9/9 on extra point attempts.
Chris Jones, Dallas Cowboys
- 46.1 yards per punt, net of 40.2 (tied for 15th in the NFL), and has put only five punts inside the 20 yard line, which is tied for 26th in the league.
Trevor Daniel, Houston Texans
- Averaging 42 yards per punt, net of 39 (29th in the NFL), but has put 11 punts inside the 20, which is good for 7th in the league.
Running Back Tyler Ervin is the Houston Texans primary return man on both kickoffs and punts. He's averaging 9.9 yards per punt return and 25.3 yards per kickoff return. That 25.3 yards per kickoff return leads the league.
Tavon Austin has been the only Cowboys player to return a punt this year, but he's only averaging 4.7 yards per return on his punts. Any good returns he's had have been negated by penalties. Deonte Thompson has mainly handled the kick return duties and is averaging 24.5 yards per return.
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The Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys are pretty evenly matched on paper and it should be a close game on Sunday.
For the Cowboys, the key to the game will be how well they're defense will be able to contain Deshaun Watson and the passing game. When they get opportunities to make plays on Watson or the ball when he's under pressure, they'll need to take advantage of it.
On offense, Dak Prescott and the passing game will have to be able to exploit the Texans pass defense that is allowing 288 passing yards and 2.75 passing touchdowns per game.
For the Texans, they'll have to contain the Dallas Cowboys running game with the same effectiveness they have been in 2018 so that the Dallas Cowboys aren't able to use play action with as much efficiency.
On offense, they'll need to keep Deshaun Watson clean and make plays when he's under pressure, because he's going to be under pressure.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.
Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.
But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.
What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.
It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.
Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.
A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.
However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.
They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.
The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.
Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.
Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.
There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.
Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit
There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.
Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.
The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.
That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.
Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.
The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.
This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.
3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals
The free agency period in the NFL will be here in a little more than three weeks and the Dallas Cowboys will begin the annual tradition of trying to put together the best 53-man roster that they can come up with. Free agency is just one part of the equation that includes the draft, the signing of undrafted free agents, adding and subtracting from the roster during training camp, and picking up players after the final cut down day.
You can rest assured that Will McClay and the entire pro scouting department is doing their due diligence in anticipation of the March 13th start to the 2019 free agency period. They'll look high and low for players that can come in and be contributors for the Cowboys. Even within their own division.
Between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, there are some interesting names to consider as the Cowboys peruse the free agent aisles of the NFL superstore. Some of those players like Landon Collins, Ronald Darby, Nick Foles, and Brandon Graham will be new releases that will cost you a pretty penny at the check out stand. Others like Haloti Ngata will be in the used and refurbished section. And then there are those who could be had at a reasonable or discounted rate.
Here are three from within the NFC East that the Cowboys could have their eye on.
Mario Edwards, Defensive Line, New York Giants
The former Oakland Raiders second round pick out of Florida State University has already played for two teams in his young four-year career. That isn't a good sign for Mario Edwards as he approaches free agency for the first time. You don't generally see many top 100 picks get released from the team that originally drafted as they usually wait as long as they can to see if the player is going to hit.
For Mario Edwards, he found himself caught in a numbers game and outplayed by two rookies in Oakland's training camp in 2018, leading to his release. It also sounds like the Raiders couldn't quite figure out where to put him on their defensive line.
We know that the Dallas Cowboys love looking around the league for those reclamation projects. Edwards could be the next David Irving or Antwaun Woods. A player that isn't highly thought of, but in the right situation and with the right coaching could flourish.
Edwards has played 14 or more games in three of his first four seasons, missing his second season with a hip injury. He totaled more than two sacks a season in those three seasons. He isn't by any stretch of the imagination someone who is going to come in and replace DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but he could be a nice depth piece with potential to see significant snaps both at defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle.
Edwards could be the next Rod Marinelli special.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
The Dallas Cowboys could be in the market for a slot wide receiver this offseason if Cole Beasley is allowed to walk in free agency, which seems like a near certainty. There are several intriguing options on the roster in Allen Hurns and Cedric Wilson that could play in the slot some, or play on the outside allowing Amari Cooper to play in the slot. They could also look to the draft for Beasley's replacement as well. In the free agent pool, there are several interesting names, one of which is Jordan Matthews.
Jordan Matthews just finished his second stint in Philadelphia and while he didn't have huge production in Philly in 2018 -- 20 receptions on 28 targets for 300 yards and two touchdowns, he's a player with a track record in the NFL and could be a "big slot" option.
In Matthews first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 75 receptions on 115 targets for 891 yards and 6.3 touchdowns in his first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2014, Matthews caught 64 of his 67 receptions from the slot, which was second in the NFL that season. In 2015, he led the NFL in receptions from the slot with 81, while also scoring eight touchdowns. In 2016, his final year with the Eagles, he was ninth in the NFL with 53 receptions. So, in those first three seasons in the league, he averaged 67 receptions, 796.3 yards, and six touchdowns. He caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons for the Eagles in the slot.
He's not the same player that Cole Beasley is, but he's a player that knows how to win in the slot and because of the past couple of years could be a cheaper option to try and replace Cole's production.
Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins
If Jordan Matthews is the inexpensive option for the Dallas Cowboys in the slot, Jamison Crowder would require paying a pretty penny. Spotrac.com estimates that Crowder could be worth $8 million per year over four years on the open market.
Interestingly enough, he's never been as productive as Cole Beasley or Jordan Matthews, but because of his age and his work the last couple of seasons, injuries not withstanding, he's seen in a more positive light than Matthews.
Crowder is cut from a similar cloth as Beasley. Smaller in stature and uses quickness and speed to win games. As Cowboys fans, we know all to well the effect that he has in game. Crowder, however, has never had more than 66 receptions in a season and has only scored more than three touchdowns once in his four seasons in the NFL; back in 2016 when he scored seven.
Crowder is coming off of an injury this season that limited him to just nine games, 29 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. In his three full seasons prior to 2018, Crowder averaged 64 receptions on 93 targets for 746 yards and four touchdowns.
If for some reason, his market comes in less than the $8 million per year that Spotrac.com is projecting, I'd be very interested in bringing Crowder to Dallas.
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Each of these guys offers something intriguing that the Dallas Cowboys could use. Whether it's a defensive lineman or a slot wide receiver, they all bring something to the table. The Dallas Cowboys need to approach this offseason with a "go for it" mentality, but if they continue to follow their free agency philosophy, Mario Edwards and Jordan Matthews could be nice pieces to add to the team that offer a lot of upside.
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