Here we go, Bills Mafia! It’s almost game time between the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, and it’s quite likely there’ll be a playoff-like atmosphere within the cozy, cold, and wet confines of Highmark Stadium. There’s scant time left for teams to make their push toward the playoffs, or put their stamp on a division-crowning season. The playoffs feel very much a given for the Cowboys, who trail only the San Francisco 49ers (the only team to have clinched a playoff berth at this point). The Bills, it’s still a matter of “if” not “when” they qualify for postseason play.
But is Dallas peaking too early — and is such a thing possible if a team has won six straight while averaging 40.2 points per game in its last five games? The Cowboys are perhaps the most complete team in the NFL, and their record and quality of wins reflects that idea.
The Bills are heading into what might be their most difficult challenge yet in stopping a prolific offense that claims points at a near-constant rate. So what makes these Cowboys tick? This week, editor-in-chief David Halprin of Blogging The Boys joined me to discuss the finer points of this season’s Cowboys team. After the break, David breaks down what’s behind Dallas’ prolific offense and quarterback Dak Prescott’s play. Plus, what, if any, are Dallas’ question marks on offense and defense, and how would David go about preparing to face them?
Additionally, David shares with us some players in whom Bills Mafia may not be acutely familiar. Then he tackles what success looks like for the Cowboys this season, and what went wrong if they fall short of those goals. Finally, David reveals what he believes it’s going to take for Dallas to come out winners on Sunday.
1. What’s behind the prolific level of offensive success for quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys this season?
I was asked this same question last week before our game with the Eagles, so I’ll copy and paste the answer from that below as it serves as a good primer for the Cowboys/Dak Prescott on offense.
As much flak as Mike McCarthy gets from NFL fans, he has to get a lot of the credit for Prescott’s remarkable year. Over the offseason McCarthy added West Coast principles to the offense and had Dak working on specific 3- and 5-step drops and working on the timing of hitting that with his receivers. Dak looked more accurate and more settled in the pocket instead of having happy feet and it has seemingly helped with his footwork/mechanics. But early on, they were only utilizing the short passing game, and mostly outside the numbers. This was effective but wasn’t exactly explosive.
After the bye in Week 7, everything changed. They started using more pre-snap motion to give Prescott better reads and mismatches. They had Prescott start pushing the ball downfield more. This coincided with CeeDee Lamb going to Dak, and through Dak the coaches, and saying (paraphrased) ’trust me more, give me the ball and good things will happen’. And they did. Dak seems more comfortable in the pocket, he’s being smart about when to break the pocket, his accuracy is on point, and he’s not throwing into coverage as often, cutting the interceptions way down. It may sound strange, but McCarthy might be just the OC Dak was waiting for.
Full disclosure - after early season injuries the offensive line has been remarkably consistent and that always helps immensely. The defense has provided short fields and sometimes even leads, so that makes things easier. Plus he has a lot of weapons to utilize. So it’s not just Dak or McCarthy, this is a well-constructed offense.
2. As a coach preparing a team to face the Cowboys, how might you go about attacking them on offense, and what would you implement on defense — essentially, what are their biggest question marks on both sides of the ball?
The best thing the Bills could do on offense to attack the Cowboys defense is let Josh Allen run the ball a lot, and use a lot of RPO-type plays where there are choices about who gets the ball. The Cowboys are an aggressive, attacking defense that uses a lot of stunts and overloaded sides of the line of scrimmage to unsettle offensive blocking schemes. This allows them to get pressure on the quarterback, but it also opens up lanes for mobile quarterbacks and for plays that have a little misdirection or RPO choices. The Cardinals used this to great effect on the Cowboys to pull off an upset win. You have to use the Cowboys aggressive nature on defense against them. Also, try to isolate slot corner Jourdan Lewis, he is a player that can be exploited in the secondary.
On defense against the Cowboys offense, don’t blitz a lot. Prescott is fantastic against the blitz and will carve a defense up unless they get home on the blitz on the regular. I would also invite the Cowboys to run the ball using lighter boxes. The Cowboys will grind it out on the ground with a lead, but that part of their offense is hit and miss and it’s better to give up a medium length run than let Prescott and the receivers light your defense up. Speaking of receivers, I would bracket CeeDee Lamb as much as possible. He can turn a game in an instant.
3. Besides the usual names and those who’ve become such in fantasy circles, who are the Cowboys’ unsung heroes — maybe one from each side of the ball?
On defense, the unsung heroes are linebackers Damone Clark and Markquese Bell. Clark is a second-year player that the Cowboys drafted in the fifth round. Bell is a second-year UDFA who was moved from safety to linebacker before the season started. When Leighton Vander Esch was lost for the season early on, there was real concern about what would become of the middle of the defense. Clark and Bell have done a remarkable job providing solid run defense, and Bell is an incredible coverage linebacker.
Earlier this year, I would always answer this question for the offense with tight end Jake Ferguson. But it now kind of feels like he’s breaking into the general NFL consciousness of fans. So let’s go with Rico Dowdle at running back. Tony Pollard is still the lead back and will get the majority of the action, but don’t sleep on Dowdle. He is a hard-nosed runner who can handle contact, but still has some wiggle to his game. The Cowboys are doing a better job of getting him involved lately.
4. Perhaps it’s obvious, but what does a successful season look like for the Cowboys this season — and what went wrong if they don’t reach that/those goal(s)?
I think the general consensus is that for this to be even a somewhat successful season the Cowboys have to at least reach the conference championship game. If we get knocked out in the wild card or divisional round again, we’ll just be spinning our wheels like the franchise has been doing for a few decades now. The Cowboys have had a lot of regular-season success recently, but the playoffs have been a different story. The conference championship would at least represent progress, and with how well the team has been playing this year it would feel like a letdown not to get there at a minimum. As for what went wrong if we don’t make it? I can only say the usual - injuries, QB slump, etc. But the real answer is the 49ers. If our season crashes again, put good money on the idea that the 49ers are behind it.
5. DraftKings Sportsbook predicts a very close outcome, with the Cowboys mere 2-point underdogs on the road. Dallas is a completely different team away from home, at 3-3. What do you believe it will take for the Cowboys to win in Orchard Park, NY?
On offense, it’s Dak Prescott. Sure he needs his offensive line to block, his receivers to make the catches and create YAC, but Prescott is the key. When he is accurate and hitting his receivers in stride, not making them reach back or slam on the brakes for a catch, the offense is lethal. It’s definitely better at home in a dome on turf, but it can work outside. We’ve seen it this year in some of the road games. If Prescott can avoid the turnovers like he’s been doing, and has his best accuracy, they can put up points. On defense, they have to contain Josh Allen’s legs. Running quarterbacks can wreck a defense like the one the Cowboys run, they have to be aware of their gap discipline. Obviously a turnover or two would also help.
My thanks to David Halprin for taking the time to chat Cowboys-Bills ahead of this weekend’s game. To read my responses, head over to Blogging the Boys for the companion article linked here (and on the Buffalo Rumblings home page).
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