5 Players to Watch: Cowboys @ Rams, Divisional Round
Saturday night’s Cowboys-Rams Divisional Round game in Los Angeles has star-studded rosters on both sides of the ball. In our look at Players/Matchups to watch, we’ll begin with the workhorses for each offense.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott (#21) and Rams RB Todd Gurley (#30)
Ezekiel Elliott’s and Todd Gurley’s NFL careers have mirrored each other in many ways. Their numbers are eerily similar and they are both the bell cows for the respective offenses. Both are dual-threats as runners as well as catching the ball out of the backfield.
Some quick notes about Zeke & Gurley and their production in 2018:
*Zeke led the NFL in rushing this year (1,434 yds); Gurley finished third (1,251)
*Zeke was 2nd overall in Scrimmage Yards (2,001); Gurley finished 4th (1,831)
*Zeke averaged 133.4 Scrimmage Yards per game; Gurley averaged 130.8
*Zeke led the NFL in Big Play Runs (10+ yards) with 41; Gurley was second with 35
*Gurley averaged 4.9 yards-per-rush; Zeke averaged 4.7
*Gurley finished with 580 receiving yards; Zeke had 567
*Gurley was #1 in the NFL in total first downs (96); Zeke was right behind him with 95
The biggest difference between the two players’ production this year is scoring. Zeke led the Cowboys with 9 touchdowns (6 rushing, 3 receiving). But Gurley led the entire NFL with 21 touchdowns (17 rushing, 4 receiving).
The discrepancy in scoring between these two players proves just how prolific the Rams are when it comes to putting points on the board.
The Rams are #2 in the NFL in scoring and averaged 32.9 points-per-game. The Cowboys averaged only 21.2 points per game (#22 in the NFL).
Gurley’s rushing/receiving and scoring numbers would have been even higher if not for the fact that he missed the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury. He’s been listed as “limited” on the injury report this week, but is expected to play in the game. C.J. Anderson (#35), the former Broncos’ star, was signed by the Rams in mid-December and he’s played the past two weeks in place of Gurley.
Having guys like Gurley (as well as Anderson) and Zeke featured in an offense means that it’s going to be a long day for the defensive linemen. That’s a segue to the next player on our list – a guy that’s considered to be the best defensive player in the NFL – Aaron Donald.
Rams DL Aaron Donald (#99)
How awesome is Aaron Donald? He was the only player in the NFL this season to be named a unanimous All-Pro selection.
As Zeke pointed out to reporters this week, when it comes to the Rams’ defense, it all starts with #99.
Dallas Morning News
Donald is such a dominating player at defensive tackle, he’s getting consideration for NFL MVP honors. That’s unusual for a guy who plays the interior of the defensive line. But Donald is a special talent and deserving of all the accolades he receives. He can wreck a game all by himself. He led the NFL this season with 20 ½ sacks. Incredible!
The Rams play a 3-4 defense which means 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers. Donald is flanked on the d-line by Ndamukong Suh (#92) and defensive end Michael Brockers (#90). Holy crud, what a line! Talk about some guys that can create havoc and generate a pass rush!
This is arguably the toughest test of the season for the Cowboys’ offensive line. But there is evidence that the Cowboys can get some push up front in the run game.
For all the accolades given to the Rams’ d-line, numbers don’t lie when it comes to production. The Rams have allowed 5.1 yards-per-rush this season. They finished 2018 ranked #23 against the run, allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game.
Obviously, establishing the run is important in every game. But it will be critical this weekend for the Cowboys. First of all, if Zeke and the o-line can crank out yards on the ground, it will take pressure of Dak who will be dodging Aaron Donald all day.
And cranking out yards on the ground also runs the clock, which mean Gurley and Rams QB Jared Goff and the vaunted Rams offense will be watching from the sideline.
Speaking of Goff…
Mark J. Terrill via AP
Rams QB Jared Goff (#16)
Goff was one of only three quarterbacks to finish the 2018 season with 4,500 passing yards and a passer rating of 100+. Goff was the #1 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, the same year in which the Cowboys selected Dak Prescott (#4) in the 4th round.
Goff didn’t have the same kind of scintillating rookie season as Dak back in 2016. In fact, Goff didn’t win any of his 7 starts as a rookie. But when head coach Sean McVay arrived in 2017, Goff started to soar and the Rams have added many weapons to the offensive arsenal.
Cowboys cornerback Chido Awuzie (#24) has played against Goff going back to their high school days in California when they competed against each other in 7-on-7 games.
Awuzie also went against Goff in college. Awuzie says Goff is “a heady player” who is “decisive” and “knows where he wants to go with the ball”.
It’s no surprise that Goff was elected to his second-straight Pro Bowl this season. Last year when the Rams beat the Cowboys, Goff threw two touchdown passes.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin (#10)
Tavon Austin has been limited in practice this week because of a sore groin, but you know he’s itching to play in Saturday’s game because he’s going against his old team. Austin is a former Rams’ 1st round pick who spent his first 5 seasons there before the Rams dealt him to the Cowboys last April in exchange for a 6th round pick. It was a long fall from grace for Austin who was the 8th overall pick of the 2013 draft.
Austin told reporters this week that Saturday’s game is not “a Tavon versus the Rams thing”… but he also admitted that he felt disrespected by the Rams for trading him.
Austin made an impact in last weekend’s Wild Card win over the Seahawks thanks to a 51-yard punt return. He also had a punt return for a touchdown overturned by a penalty.
The Cowboys are going to need catalytic plays on special teams and offense to keep up with the high-powered Rams this weekend. Austin could provide a catalytic play or two, if he can stay healthy enough to get to (and through) the game.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory (#94) vs Rams LT Andrew Whitworth (#77)
Andrew Whitworth is one of the finest offensive tackles of his generation. After spending 11 seasons with the Bengals, Whitworth joined the Rams last season.
USA TODAY Sports
He’s been the protector for Jared Goff and his arrival (which coincided with head coach Sean McVay) is one of the big reasons for the Rams’ turnaround. He’s a really good player, and at left tackle he’ll be matched up most of the day with defensive end Randy Gregory.
Gregory has played really, really well these past several weeks. I’ve got a feeling that Saturday could be his “coming out party” the same way that DeMarcus Lawrence (#90) had a breakthrough game in the Wild Card win over the Lions a few years ago. It’s not going to be easy for Gregory this weekend going against one of the premiere left tackles in the game.
But here’s the bottom line: if the Cowboys can’t disrupt Jared Goff with a pass rush, and if the Cowboys can’t set the edge when Gurley runs the ball, it’s going to be a very long night. Lawrence will also get some chances to go against Whitworth when/if the Cowboys’ defensive ends flip sides.
But Saturday night is a big stage in front of a national audience. And if Randy Gregory wants to raise his profile nationally, this would be a great time to do it.
*Saturday’s Cowboys-Rams kickoff at The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is 7:15pm central. The winner advances to the NFC Championship Game. The game will be broadcast on FOX; you can also listen to the action along The Dallas Cowboys Radio Network.