5 Players to Watch: Titans @ Cowboys
The Titans and Cowboys are both coming off their bye weekends and enter Monday night’s contest with similar issues: identical records (3-4), struggling pass offenses, and top-tier scoring defenses. This is a very important game for both teams because they have played below expectations through the first 8 weeks of the season. The Titans have lost 3-in-a-row under rookie Head Coach Mike Vrabel. This would be a big road win if they could come to Arlington and snatch a win from the Cowboys.
The Cowboys used their bye weekend to address two deficiencies on offense, so let’s start on that side of the ball as we begin our “List of Players/Matchups to Watch” in this game.
Cowboys WR Amari Cooper (#19)
Cowboys Nation will get its first look at Cooper who was acquired in a trade with the Raiders on October 22nd. A first-round pick is always a very expensive price to pay in a trade, but the Cowboys believe Cooper is not just a piece of the puzzle for a playoff run this year; they believe this 24-year old receiver can be a “cornerstone player” for this franchise for years to come.
Cooper’s contributions this Monday night cannot just be measured in catches and receiving yards. Just Cooper’s presence, or as Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal says, Cooper’s “reputation” as a big-play threat, could change the game plan for the Titans defense. It will be interesting to see if the Titans allocate extra resources to cover Cooper. If they do, that will open the door for opportunities for other receivers like Cole Beasley (#11), Michael Gallup (#13), Allen Hurns (#17), and Deonte Thompson (#15). If the Titans play Cooper over-the-top, that means they can’t stack as many defenders to stop Ezekiel Elliott (#21) and the Cowboys’ rushing attack.
The Titans are ranked in the Top 10 in pass defense. They aren’t as good against the run. But they are terrific when it comes to stopping opponents from getting into the end zone.
In fact, this game features 2 of the Top 3 scoring defenses in the NFL. The Titans are #3 and allow only 18.1 points per game. The Cowboys defensive is ranked #2 and allow only 17.6 points per game.
And when it comes to Red Zone scoring defense, these are the Top 2 teams in the league. The Titans defense is ranked #1 overall (33.3%) and the Cowboys defense is #2 overall (36.8%).
What do those numbers mean? It means that points will be at a premium and even if offenses are able to move the ball and get some yards, it’s hard to punch the ball in the end zone. The Cowboys offense must be efficient when the get in scoring position! Neither team can afford to settle for field goals all night; who is going to be able to put the ball in the end zone?
Cowboys Offensive Line
The poor performance of the offensive line in the loss at the Redskins contributed to the decision to replace Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander with Assistant Line Coach Marc Colombo. Hudson Houck, the former Cowboys offensive line coach was brought back as a special advisor to help Colombo. Houck was Tyron Smith’s (#77) coach during his rookie season. Smith has played pretty well all season, but not up to his lofty standards. That’s a very high bar, of course.
Pass protection has been an issue for the Cowboys this year, so let’s see if the coaching change provides any spark for the unit. Can they give Dak Prescott (#4) enough time in the pocket to get the ball to Cooper? Can they open some bigger holes for Zeke in the run game? They will face a tough task again this week. The Titans defensive line has a 3-time Pro Bowler at defensive tackle named Jurrell Casey. You may not be familiar with him, but he’s one of the better defensive players in the entire league.
For more on Casey, let’s check in with his former teammate, Joe Looney. That’s right, Cowboys starting center Joe Looney used to play for the Titans which means that he had to go head-to-head against Casey every day in practice.
Brynn Anderson via AP
Titans DT Jurrell Casey (#99) vs. Cowboys C Joe Looney #73
“He’s got everything you want in a defensive lineman,” Looney says of Casey. “He’s fast. He’s quick. He’s athletic. In the pass pro (protection) game he’s so good running stunts and games. Whether he’s penetrating on a loop, he’s doing a good job because he’s so athletic.
You have to play your “A” game against him because he’s one of the top-tier guys in this league.”
Casey leads the Titans this season with 3 ½ sacks. When the Cowboys played the Titans four years ago, Casey recorded 2 sacks.
Matt Dunham via AP
Titans QB Marcus Mariota (#8)
Well, if you think the Cowboys passing game and Dak Prescott are having a down season, you can take solace in the fact that the Titans passing attack and QB Marcus Mariota have been even more dreadful.
The Cowboys are averaging only 183 passing yards per game and Dak has just 8 touchdown passes. The Titans are even worse. They are ranked #30 in the NFL in passing and average a woeful 173 passing yards per game. Mariota has only 3 touchdown passes and has thrown 5 interceptions. His passer rating is bad (78.5). He ranks 30th in the NFL in passer rating (Dak’s rating is 87.4, ranked #24).
These are not good times for the Titans’ franchise QB who was the #2 overall pick of the 2014 Draft. He’s the youngest QB in franchise history to win a playoff game, but if he and the offense don’t start playing better THIS WEEK, they risk falling further behind the Texans in the AFC South.
If you think the Cowboys and Dak have a sense of urgency entering Monday’s game, you can bet that Mariota and the Titans have the same feelings.
Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz (#86)
Why is Dalton Schultz on this list? I probably should put the entire TE corps here. It’s an area that the Cowboys did not upgrade during the bye and remains young and, other than Geoff Swaim (#87), largely untested. All three of the young guys will be tested Monday night because it looks like the starter, Swaim, will be sidelined with a sprained knee.
So, look for rookie Dalton Schultz to get extensive playing time on Monday night and make his first NFL start.
Schultz is the best blocker of the three remaining healthy tight ends (including Blake Jarwin, #89 & Rico Gathers, #80). Schultz made his first NFL catch in the loss to the Redskins, but wasn’t happy with his performance because he was targeted two other times and didn’t come up with completions. Jarwin and Gathers are more of the receiving threats, but Schultz will likely get the bulk of playing time while Swaim is sidelined because the Cowboys rely on the tight end to help block in the running game.
If Zeke has a big night, you’ll know that Schultz is holding up pretty well as a blocker. Even if he doesn’t make a lot of catches, Schultz can still play a big role in the offense in pass protection and run blocking. He’s been inactive 5 games this season, so you know he’s itching to make good on this opportunity.
Kickoff at AT&T Stadium is scheduled for 7:15pm. Jason Witten will be in the broadcast booth as analyst for ESPN’s broadcast. It will be Witten’s first Cowboys’ broadcast as a member of the Monday Night Football crew.