3TFO: Cowboys @ Bengals, Week 14
This AFC/NFC showdown finds the 6-6 Dallas Cowboys and the 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals both battling for a playoff spot. The last time these two teams met (2008) saw the Cowboys, at home, beat the Carson Palmer-led Bengals 31-22 in a competitive contest.
Led by sophomores Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, the Bengals have had success against the NFC East this year, beating RG3 and the Redskins 38-31 in Washington, and stomping the defending champion New York Giants 31-13 at home. The Cowboys have had mixed results against the AFC North this season, losing a close game in Baltimore aided by poor clock management, and barely beating the Cleveland Browns at home in overtime. Dallas is also coming off a close game against the three-win Philadelphia Eagles at home in primetime. Here are some factors that will help determine who walks away victorious on Sunday.
Stopping Dez Bryant
It was tempting to focus on Green, but judging on the past four games, the wide receiver who could have the biggest impact on this game is Dez Bryant. The controversial third-year receiver is second overall in our Wide Receiver Rating signature stat, gifting Tony Romo a 118.1 passer-rating when targeting him. Over the past month, Bryant has 29 catches, 475 yards, six TD catches and no drops. He can make all kinds of catches and is especially dangerous once he has the ball — his scoring catches last week demonstrated his elusiveness in open space as well as his ability to simply power his way through a defender.
Throughout the day Bryant will be up against a combination of Leon Hall and ex-Cowboys Terence Newman and Adam Jones, all of whom have been well above average this year. Jones, playing primarily on the right side, has conceded only one TD pass (to Santana Moss) and a 54.8 completion percentage in his coverage, with five passes defended. Newman, playing on the left side, has had a resurgence with the Bengals after a terrible 2011 campaign, allowing only 45 passes to be completed on 75 targets with three TDs allowed, but also seven passes defensed and two interceptions of Peyton Manning. Hall, playing either on the right side or the slot, had a rough opening night in Baltimore (five of seven passes given up for 103 yards and a score), but has rarely struggled since (only two negatively graded performances). Can this trio contain Bryant? Each of their play this year suggests it is possible.
Andrew Whitworth vs. DeMarcus Ware
This matchup finds our second-highest rated pass-blocking tackle (Andrew Whitworth) against our highest rated pass-rushing 3-4 OLB (DeMarcus Ware). Ware’s work against the run and in coverage are not as good his teammate Anthony Spencer ‘s this year, but his ability to terrorize quarterbacks still makes him one of the most feared defenders in the league, with 48 total pressures on the year. He’ll be working against Whitworth, who has been reliable year-after-year and who recently caught the media’s attention for starting a fight with an Oakland Raider or two after a late hit on his signal-caller. The 2006 second-round pick has surrendered four sacks this season, but no other QB knockdowns and only 10 hurries — his worst day was in Cleveland (a sack and four hurries) and was still far from terrible. Ware does move around in Rob Ryan’s defense, but he’ll primarily be lined up across from Whitworth, which will be one of the more interesting battles to watch in this contest.
Cowboys O-Line vs. Bengals D-Line
This matchup has the biggest potential to be a complete mismatch. The Cowboys’ offensive line has suffered some injuries, but the main problem has been the starters. Former first-round pick Tyron Smith was a solid right tackle last year, but has been a liability at left tackle this year (35 total pressures conceded with over a game and a half missed due to injury). 2007 fourth-round pick Doug Free, despite a great 2010 season at left tackle, has regressed since, especially since being moved to right tackle this year (-16.5 overall). The best of the original starters still playing, in terms of pass blocking, has been ex-Bengal free agent acquisition LG Nate Livings, and he’s still given up six sacks, eight QB hits and 10 hurries.
Facing off against this unit is the Bengal’s defensive line, which can be dominate on any given Sunday. Everyone by now should know Geno Atkins, but there’s also former Florida Gator Carlos Dunlap who feasted on the terrible Chargers’ offensive line last week to the tune of two sacks and five hurries. Starters Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers, and Domata Peko aren’t the most consistent pass rushers in the league, but have accumulated a combined 17 sacks, 14 QB knockdowns and 43 hurries. Anyone of this trio could have a big impact in this game. Don’t be surprised if Romo spends much of the day running for his life, and give the line much-deserved credit if he doesn’t have to.
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