5 Players/Matchups to Watch: Cowboys @ Falcons
Without the suspended Zeke Elliott, all eyes will be on Cowboys running backs Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, and Rod Smith this weekend. But there are plenty of other matchups and players that merit our attention in Atlanta on Sunday when the Cowboys take on the defending NFC Champion Falcons.
Here’s our list of 5 Players/Matchups to Watch. When it comes to running backs for both teams, we’re grouping them together. Let’s get started:
James D. Smith via AP
Cowboys Running Backs Alfred Morris #46, Rod Smith #45, and Darren McFadden #20
Expect for Morris to get the start in place of Zeke, but you’ll see plenty of Smith who already had been getting work as the Cowboys’ third-down back. Coaches and teammates are high on Smith who is an up-and-comer and already an important member of the special teams. McFadden will be active for the first time in 9 games, so he’s obviously rested and ready. But will he be rusty after the long layoff?
Morris and McFadden have long pedigrees, each have topped 1,000 rushing yards in multiple seasons. But they’ve taken a backseat to Zeke the past year-and-a-half. Morris has only 14 carries in the first 8 games this year. He’s averaging a very healthy 8.3 yards-per-carry, but that’s mostly due to the 70-yard run he made against the Rams. Morris’ style is suited to the Cowboys’ run game.
By the way, I know you’re bummed about Zeke not playing. But to add a little perspective, the last time these two teams played each other, the date was September 27, 2015. Your starting running back was Joseph Randle. Your starting quarterback was Brandon Weeden. Can you believe that was only two years ago? Remembering that game, I’m feeling pretty good about our combo of Dak Prescott and the trio of Morris/Smith/McFadden. Not as good as if Zeke were back there, but the Cowboys did well to position themselves in case of Zeke’s absence.
Who is going to block for Dak & the running backs? Will Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith be available? We better add Smith’s backup to our list.
Ric Tapia via AP
Cowboys Offensive Lineman Chaz Green #79
Green is the ‘swing tackle’ which means he’s the backup at both the left and right tackle positions. He’s gotten first-team reps throughout the week because Tyron Smith suffered a groin injury in last Sunday’s win over the Chiefs. Green filled-in for Tyron at the end of the 4th quarter last week. Green actually was the starting left guard for the first three games of the season, then he suffered a hip injury during practice and missed Game 4. He lost the starting job to Jonathan Cooper, so he’s been the backup at tackle/guard since then. The good news is that Green has been practicing every Wednesday with the first team because Smith has a sore back and doesn’t practice on Wednesdays.
Green is a three-year veteran who played well in the two games he started last season at left tackle when Smith was sidelined with a neck injury. But whoever is at left tackle, as well as the rest of the offensive line, will have their hands full this weekend with a talented, fast Falcons defense with a pass rush led by a really talented guy named Vic Beasley.
Aaron M. Sprecher via AP
Falcons Outside Linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. #44
This guy is quick, a speed rusher at linebacker. Last year he had an outstanding rookie season. Over the past year-and-a-half, he’s tallied 19 ½ sacks, third most in the NFL over that time span. He has 4 sacks this season. The Falcons’ speed on defense is something that Cowboys coaches and players have talked about this week. Beasley epitomizes that speed. Coach Garrett noted that when the Cowboys scouted him prior to the 2015 draft, “he leapt off the tape” because of his athleticism and production. I’m excited to see Beasley play in-person for the first time. And if the Falcons fans get rocking in the new stadium, the loud noise makes it hard for the offense to communicate and the Cowboys will use a silent count. The noise can help the pass rush.
Falcons Running Backs Devonta Freeman #24 and Tevin Coleman #26
The Falcons have a 1-2 punch at running back in Freeman and Coleman. Freeman gets more of the carries. He’s not tall (5’ 8”), but he’s stout (206). Over the past three seasons, his 27 rushing touchdowns is more than any other NFL player. He’s also third in the NFL is rushing yards (2,647) since 2015.
Coach Garrett notes that Freeman “is more of a slasher, while Coleman catches the edge a little bit more, but both are dangerous and can catch the ball as well as run with it.”
Paul Jasienski via AP
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who probably says “we’ve got to stop the run first this week” while he’s sleeping, emphasizes that the Falcons ground game is what makes Atlanta’s offense go. If they establish the run, they love to play-action pass (fake a handoff, then throw the ball). If the Cowboys defense doesn’t slow down Freeman and Coleman on Sunday, it will be an awfully long afternoon.
Bob Leverone via AP
Falcons Wide Receiver Julio Jones #11
You can make a strong argument for Julio Jones being the best player in the NFL. He hasn’t practiced this week because of a sore ankle, so there is some question about his availability for Sunday. Selfishly, I want him to play because it’s such a joy to watch this guy. He’s an incredible athlete. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Coach Garrett.
“I think he’s a rare player, he’s rare physically,” Garrett says of Julio Jones. “He’s so strong at the ball. He instinctive, intuitive. He’s great in the run-after-the-catch. He can jump up and get it. He’s bigger (6’ 3”, 220) than any cornerback in the league. He’s a great route-runner and makes contested catches. He’s a mismatch player.”
And the good thing for Jones, and fellow starting receiver Mohamed Sanu #12, is that they’ve got last year’s NFL MVP throwing to them. Matt Ryan #2 has “rare qualities”, notes Garrett. He’s talking about character and leadership, not just his physical skills and football intellect.
Coach Marinelli notes that Ryan is great at making decisive throws and getting rid of the ball quickly. That means the defensive line is going to have trouble getting to Ryan for sacks. But they still need to harass/hurry him, and try to knock balls down at the line of scrimmage. Don’t measure the success of the defensive line this weekend by sacks, measure it by hurries. The Cowboys’ front 7 has to harass Ryan in order to give the defensive backs a chance versus Julio Jones, an elite receiver. And you can’t sleep on Sanu.
The Falcons are only 4-4 this year and everyone’s asking “What’s wrong with this team?”. Well, at this point a year ago, they were 5-3 before they got on a hot streak which they rode all the way to the Super Bowl.
*Sunday’s Cowboys-Falcons game at the sparkling, new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta kicks off at 3:25pm central. It will be broadcast on FOX as well as the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network.