While the Lions have legitimate things to play for in the NFC playoff picture, needing a win in Dallas on Monday night and some help to potentially wrap up a playoff spot prior to their week 17 game against the Packers, Jason Garrett's top-seeded Cowboys will be looking to match their intensity in a "tune-up" for the playoffs that will come through AT&T Stadium.
These two teams are meeting for the first time since a 2014 playoff game down in Dallas that featured plenty of fireworks, and a Cowboys victory.
Q: I like to start off with how opposing fans are viewing the Cowboys coming into their game. The Lions haven't played in Dallas since that 2014 playoff game, which featured plenty of controversy and late theatrics from Tony Romo. Now the Lions are seeing Dak Prescott, what is their perspective coming into this match up?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): When it comes to the fans, for several days now, there's a nervous sense of energy. They had a five game winning streak snapped by the Giants, leaving them wondering how the Lions will play against top competition. I think their hopes probably got a little bit better after last night (Thursday) with the Giants loss wrapping things up for Dallas, but everyone realizes this is no small feat no matter how much Dallas gets up for it.
This whole Dallas roster is so loaded, they've become a model for how you build a team. Its going to be a huge test for the Lions one way or another. I think people are definitely excited for it, they know Green Bay is right on Detroit's heels, and its likely week 17 is going to be mean everything for the division. If you win in Dallas, it sets you on course and potentially wraps up a playoff spot before then. That is what everyone's been looking for.
Q: Matt Stafford missed some throws against the Giants due to the injury in his hand, going up against a great New York defense. He's still playing as an MVP candidate under Jim Bob Cooter. Not having to deal with the elements in an indoor game against a Cowboys defense that can give up some passing yards, what is the latest on his status and what are you expecting from him in this game after another week off?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): The preparation for Stafford is a little bit different this week than it was last week. He's been dealing with the dislocated middle finger that he suffered in the Bears game.
Last week he was preparing with a one-handed glove built for the rainy conditions in New York. This week he's switched to a white, one-finger glove that he thinks will make him more comfortable playing indoors.
I think it will - he's had some really nice games at AT&T Stadium against the Cowboys. I don't know if being a Texas guy makes him more comfortable, but he's had a great year and a few off weeks against great defenses dealing with this injury.
He's ready to get back on track and these WRs are ready to get some individual match ups they can win. New York made that incredibly hard last week. If there is one area you can attack Dallas, it is through the air and I think that is what they're looking forward to.
Q: Speaking of the WR match ups for the Lions against the Cowboys, it seems like Brandon Carr will get most of the work against the Lions top target in Golden Tate. Carr has played well against guys like Mike Evans in recent weeks, so who else needs to step up in the Detroit passing game against Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): The Lions have been facing teams lately that really play a lot of man coverage. The Giants had superior athletes to where these Lions WRs are right now.
Against Dallas, Rod Marinelli loves to run more zone than teams usually do. It will be interesting to see if he tries to go with a little bit more press man.
With a QB as in-control as Stafford, he has a good time against zone coverage where he can read the field and find holes. Without Calvin Johnson now, he really spreads the ball around seeing what match ups are there.
The Cowboys secondary is a little bit more vulnerable so it will be interesting to see what the Lions do.
Q: Stafford has been doing this without a strong running game, as he has his whole career with the Lions. Looking ahead to this week against a Cowboys team that leads the league in rushing defense, what needs to improve in this Lions running game moving forward for this week and in the playoffs without that true rushing threat?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): Its been an ongoing problem for them ever since Ameer Abdullah went out with a foot injury on Injured Reserve a couple of weeks ago. They've shuffled the deck at that position with Theo Riddick who is more of a scat back, and he has also not been here with a wrist injury the past couple weeks.
The Lions are down to a 7th round rookie in Dwayne Washington and a 2nd year player in Zach Zenner, who is more of an inside runner. The real issues for them, more than who is carrying the ball, is what they're dealing with up front. They've had some shuffles on the offensive line at both guard spots, and center Travis Swanson suffered a concussion a couple of weeks ago.
They'll come out and run plays that they think will work with pulling guards but they are not connecting, trying to combine that with the running backs this late in the year is difficult. A quick fix would be to get Theo Riddick healthy, but I highly doubt that he plays on Monday against the Cowboys.
Bigger than that, they need to stick to their run blocking scheme and get guys connecting with backs going to the right holes. Executing the right way is important against teams with personnel advantages against them to stay on schedule instead of having the rushing numbers they had at the Giants.
Q: Getting into these defenses, the Lions defense may not have a lot of well-known names but they have played well in support of this pass-happy offense. Who are a few names on this side of the ball for Cowboys fans to be aware of as they try to evaluate Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the last two weeks before the playoffs?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): One guy to keep an eye out for is FS Glover Quin. He's one of their most tenured players and he's just been doing one role well for a very long time.
The Lions will run a Cover 4 that looks like a prevent defense as their base, they are hell-bent on not giving up the big plays. They've matched up well with Dez Bryant a few times because of this.
Quin will prevent that deep pass while also stepping right up in the running game, almost like a linebacker. He's a very sure tackler, and with CB Darius Slay dealing with a hamstring injury he'll be counted on to step up against Bryant and against Dallas' running game.
Another guy to look out for is OLB DeAndre Levy, who's snaps are increasing working back from a knee injury. I would expect him to play over 60% of the Lions' defensive snaps, and he is a huge difference maker when he's out there. He made eight solo tackles on less than half of the snaps against the Giants. Levy is a sideline to sideline player who also covers RBs and TEs out of the backfield.
The Cowboys use Elliott and Jason Witten in the short passing game along with running stretch plays to Zeke to take advantage of his speed and vision. The Lions will be leaning on Levy to limit those plays from turning into big ones.
Q: Do you see anything changing schematically for the Lions defensively since they play a Cover 4 look, based on the fact that they'll need to try to slow down the Cowboys running game and perhaps force Prescott to throw more against a secondary that is playing well?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): I don't think they will change too much from what they normally do. When you think of two high safety looks, you typically expect to be vulnerable to the run. Their version of Cover 4 has their linebackers and safeties reading these running plays, and it has worked out pretty well.
Levy and Quin can know where the plays are going based on this defensive line winning run gaps, but the Lions will probably keep more guys in the box with the linebackers spread out since Levy covers so well. LB Josh Bynes has covered well too, so they'll rely on those guys in the middle of the field.
You can't rely on your front to stop everything against Dallas, but you know what they're going to do.
Few teams can stop it though, except the Lions are the #1 tackling team in the NFL right now. They know Dallas is going to get a push and get some yards, but if they limit the big plays to force 3rd down throws and win little battles they'll look at it as a win.
Q: Before we get to your game prediction, I wanted to ask about DE Randy Gregory - who will finally be back on the field this week. He'll be trying to help a Cowboys pass rush that is surprisingly making plays. My take on Gregory has been that he is a guy that offensive coordinators actually have to game plan for at his position against the Cowboys. I don't think the same can be said about David Irving or Benson Mayowa, who can make plays but might not force an offense to change things in the blocking scheme.
What are the Lions saying about the fact that they'll be facing Randy Gregory, and what is their game plan for him outside of playing him 1 on 1 to start - chipping with a back or tight end if needed later?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): We asked Jim Bob Cooter about him today, and they are totally prepared to see Gregory. Its been an interesting process scouting him, going back to last year's tape but projecting how he'll play with Mayowa and Irving.
There is a challenge there, and it will be a challenge for Gregory to get his feet under him, but nothing matters more than protecting Stafford through this injury. Having a running back, tight end, or sometimes a fullback help block is always something the Lions are conscious of.
I think they are also taking David Irving seriously after his breakout game against Tampa Bay, and they know Mayowa finds a way with his effort to affect the game. They will have a plan for Gregory to help their tackles, and there will not be any lapses in preparation of knowing where he will be and what he can do.
Q: Who wins this game and why?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): I planned on picking the Cowboys at home, they are a machine right now, but I'm going to go with the Lions now based solely on last night's (Thursday's) result changing the game for Dallas.
I don't know if it will change them playing their starters, but it changes the fire they'll bring into this game. The Lions are so frustrated by last week's loss to the Giants, they are ready to beat a good team and get away from the fear of losing three straight to end the season.
Right now I would go with the Lions 27-21. The Cowboys are so deep that they could go to their backups and it will be a really competitive game, but it seems like Stafford against this secondary, back in Texas and in a dome, can get back on track and find a way to pull this out.
Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak
The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their second road win of the season against another inconsistent Atlanta Falcons team. As both try to get back to .500, this game will be filled with interesting matchups and implications. After upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20 last Sunday, the Cowboys need to get another upset win to keep being relevant in the league this year.
Here's this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist! I hope you enjoy and I encourage you to let me know what your wishes are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Stop Julio Jones' 100-Yard Game Streak
With the Atlanta Falcons sitting at 4-5, many have overlooked Wide Receiver Julio Jones' hot streak. In each of his last four games, Jones has accounted for more than 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Totaling 476 yards in his last four games, Jones is ready to face Cowboys' Cornerback Byron Jones.
Byron has certainly been a pleasant surprise in 2018, playing at a great level right now. He has faced Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins this year and made a good job of defending these "Tier 1" pass-catchers. It's worth noting the Cowboys are not making him "travel" with these players but rather keep him on a specific side of the field. That shouldn't change against the Falcons.
Wish #2: Contain WR Calvin Ridley
Back in April, Cowboys Nation eyed Calvin Ridley as a prospect who could end up wearing the Star on Sundays. However, Dallas passed on him and the Alabama product fell right unto the Falcons' lap. He's had a pretty good season and despite sharing the field with Julio Jones, he's done a great job as a rookie averaging 14 yards per reception.
The Cowboys need to contain him. While Dallas should feel comfortable with Byron doing his job, the truth is Chidobe Awuzie has struggled at times. Not that he's suddenly a bad player, but he needs to step up his game. Lining up against Ridley today will be a great test and one I wouldn't expect him to pass easily.
Wish #3: Score 28+ Points
The Cowboys have the huge advantage of going against a defense that ranks 29th in scoring defense. They did a nice job on Philadelphia last week and should continue to build on that success to do something they haven't done much this year: score a lot of points.
Scott Linehan's unit needs to do a better, more consistent, job. They've shown us they're capable of scoring, but they've also shown us their remarkable ability to seemingly forget how to do so. Blame it on play-calling, QB play, poor offensive line or whatever you prefer, it's a flawed unit.
They need to capitalize versus a poor defense like the Falcons' to find a steady rhythm.
Wish #4: Dak Makes This Falcons' Game a Turning Point
Last year, when Dak Prescott was sacked six times in Atlanta (five times by Adrian Clayborn) something changed for the Cowboys' young quarterback. Missing RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith that day, Prescott had one of the worse days in his career. It was a turning point for him as a QB and the public eye.
Now he has a chance at redemption. A shot at putting the Cowboys at .500 and reviving playoff hopes, as unlikely as it sounds.
I wish that's the case for the Cowboys young passer in Atlanta. As flawed as he is, I'm a fan of his. The kid leaves it all on the field.
Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.
Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
- DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
- DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
- G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
- G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
- DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable
The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.
Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.
The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.
Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.
- LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT
It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.
The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.
Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.
So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.
Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta
The Dallas Cowboys play their next three games in 13 days, all critical to their hopes of winning the NFC East despite alternating wins and losses since week one. For the Cowboys to earn consecutive road wins, their first coming on Sunday night at the Eagles, they'll have to come out of Atlanta in much better shape than they did just a year ago.
As expected in the NFL, a lot has changed in this year. The Cowboys 27-7 loss at the Falcons in their first game without Running Back Ezekiel Elliott was the beginning of the end on a season that forced a multitude of coaching changes in Dallas.
The Cowboys stubbornness in allowing Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn to sack Dak Prescott six times by beating Chaz Green and Byron Bell is something they hoped to move past when new positional coaches were brought in at OL, TE, QB, and WR.
It took the team admitting that these moves below Offensive Coordinator Scot Linehan were not all correct two weeks ago for the Cowboys to see any real progress, but with their win last week there's hope that the Cowboys are the improved team expected weeks ago - arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.
Firing Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander was the first move, as the Cowboys named Marc Colombo OL Coach and Hudson Houck his assistant. Colombo told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas this week that he has injured Center Travis Frederick on a headset during games as well.
Colombo, Houck, and Frederick have the Cowboys offensive line confident in their ability to play to their strengths, rewarded with a renewed faith in the zone blocking scheme that was forgotten under Alexander.
If the Cowboys offensive line was their first problem in last year's Falcons loss (it was), it's becoming their biggest strength at the right time in the season.
The Cowboys necessary changes didn't stop here though.
In desperate need of a play maker on the outside, the Cowboys are seeing their investment into Wide Receiver Amari Cooper pay off so far. Cooper is averaging 3.2 yards of separation on his routes this season, ahead of Cole Beasley's 2.6 yards as the next closest pass catcher.
Cooper's presence was a big part of Ezekiel Elliott's 151 yard rushing performance at the Eagles. A player that can win on the outside with ease and dictate coverage has benefited Prescott and the Cowboys game plan on offense enough to send away a first round pick.
It will be up to this "rebuilt" Cowboys offense to match the Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta is averaging 27.1 points per game this season, but a much more dangerous 32.2 at home. After a 1-4 start, the 4-5 Falcons are playing in front of their home fans for the first time in two weeks, losing at the Browns in week ten.
The Cowboys felt they'd be prepared for games like this after their offseason moves, instead needing to show the type of in-season urgency that's been rare for Jason Garrett's team. The same can be said about a Falcons team that's experienced playing with their backs to the wall much sooner than the Cowboys have this season, setting up a big NFC match up in the early slot Sunday.
Dak Prescott will be thankful that Chaz Green nor Byron Bell are protecting him, wanting nothing more than to deliver another win for the Cowboys to take into Thanksgiving against the division-leading Washington Redskins. Not all of the coaches responsible for the lack of adjustment in last year's game are gone. What the Cowboys do have are tangible new ideas from coaches that understand they need more than a win at the defending Super Bowl champions to call this Cowboys season a success.
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