3TFO: Raiders @ Cowboys, Week 13
As is custom, the Dallas Cowboys will be part of this year’s Thanksgiving festivities and for the second time in five years, they’ll be facing the Oakland Raiders as families everywhere slip into rest-and-digest mode.
Currently holding the edge in their tie atop the NFC East, Dallas hasn’t been able to string together wins outside of their Week 6-7 back-to-back with Washington and Philadelphia, The up-and-down nature of their campaign has left them with a 6-5 record, short of taking over a division primed for plucking.
Oakland, on the other hand, has outdone preseason expectations that saw them vying for the league’s worst record. Doing so with parts assembled from all corners, focus on righting the front office ship has been backed with some surprisingly competitive on-field displays.
Returning Veldheer vs. Recovering Ware
In his long-awaited return to the lineup for Oakland, left tackle Jared Veldheer faces off with Dallas defensive end Demarcus Ware who is also working back from injury but has declared himself “97% healthy” now. Veldheer, lost during camp to a triceps injury, has missed the entire season to this point, his absence partly responsible for the sustained shuffling Oakland’s line has seen since Week 1. Plugging him back in on the left immediately raises the line’s expected level of play – he was a Top 10 left tackle in our grades last season – not only through his inclusion but also via the ripple it’ll probably cause. With Veldheer back at LT, Khalif Barnes, who has manned the position admirably after not playing there regularly since his last season in Jacksonville in 2008, could shift to left guard, relieving Lucas Nix of his duties. Nix has amassed a grade of -41.1 on the season, the worst – by a long stretch – that we’ve ever given a guard.
Ware, despite missing three games is currently sitting sixth among 4-3 defensive ends with an overall grade of +13.6 and his Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 13.0 is also sixth as he’s turned 218 pass-rushing snaps into 36 total pressures. The six hurries he put up in Week 12 against New York suggest he’s finding form again and this being his third game back from time away, he should be settled. With Dallas’ defense generating pressure less efficiently than 24 other teams, a win here for Ware against a sure-to-be-rusty Veldheer would be a huge boost.
Jennings vs. the Middle of Dallas’ D
With the central cog of their run defense, middle linebacker Sean Lee, expected to miss at least one more week, the Cowboys remain vulnerable at the second level. Since Lee and his league-leading 17.3 Run Stop Percentage has been shelved, Ernie Sims has been asked to fill in and he’s offered just a pair of run stops in 59 snaps of replacement run defense. His grades as a run defender in the past two games (-4.1 and -4.0) have left a lot to want – in fact, in the four games this season where Sims has logged his highest snap totals he has a cumulative -13.2 grade in run defense, a mark that would set him near the bottom of the 4-3 OLB or MLB ranks if he qualified at either. Making matters worse, fellow linebacker Bruce Carter’s run defense grades have fallen off significantly in recent weeks as well, out-doing Sims with a -4.0 and -5.1 in his last two. With Nick Hayden’s constant troubles in this area and Jason Hatcher’s strengths falling far more in favor of his pass rush abilities, the middle of this front is primed for continued gashing.
Raider running back Rashad Jennings hopes to take advantage of the situation. Assuming primary rushing duties with Darren McFadden out injured, Jennings has posted 3.2 yards after contact per carry – no runner among the NFL’s Top 50 in attempts has a better mark. With one of the league’s top run-blocking centers, Stefan Wisniewski, ahead of him and the sore spot at left guard possibly seeing change, Jennings may find a path to his liking through the middle of the Dallas D.
Since his season-making performance against Denver in Week 5, Cowboy QB Tony Romo has oscillated around a middling mark with positives and negatives balancing each other out and coming in alternating weeks. For that trend to continue, a relatively down day would be in store. Now, there isn’t much in the way of predictive value to be had from looking at his past few weeks of work, but considering his path through last season was of a similar nature, the question of consistency is at least a fair one to ask.
He’ll have his full complement of receivers with Miles Austin making his return last week and they’ll face a Raider secondary that has already sent off top pick DJ Hayden for the season, is still missing Tyvon Branch and could be without former Cowboy Mike Jenkins due to a concussion suffered last week. That all looking favorable, the one aspect of the game that could swing things is how he handles the rush Oakland is sure to send.
With their penchant for sending more than just the front four (Oakland has blitzed linebackers and defensive backs more times than any other team this season), Romo’s 23rd-ranked Accuracy Percentage, 66.6 passer rating and -9.4 grade when under pressure could be key. When he’s had success (+18.8 grade, 110.3 passer rating, 19TD-4INT) it’s been with no one closing in.
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