Despite not being divisional opponents, Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season marks the third time in 18 games that the Dallas Cowboys will play the Los Angeles Rams. In the most recent iteration, the Cowboys offense plastered the Rams defense, putting 44 points up as the Cowboys cruised to an easy victory. But a lot has changed since they met last season in Week 15. If things go as planned for the Cowboys offense, 2020 will be a fun year to watch the Cowboys play. But what do the Cowboys offense have to do against the Rams defense in Week 1 to make things easier for their own defense?
The Cowboys offense needs to help Cam Erving early and often
We must all be thankful that the Cowboys didn’t lose Tyron Smith on the left side of the offensive line because this task would become much more difficult had that of been the case. Luckily Zack Martin is beside Cam Erving, so there shouldn’t be a need to really help often on that side of the ball, even when All-Metahuman Aaron Donald is opposite Martin.
There are multiple ways the Cowboys can provide Erving with assitance when they do need to. Rookie CeeDee Lamb is no slouch as a blocker, and this opportunity could provide a fun highlight or two as he aligns tight to the line and slashes down to “crack” the defensive end or rush linebacker in order to help Erving.
Coming out of college Erving appeared to be a superb athlete. However, that athleticism has not translated well onto the field at times. Therefore, protecting the “arc” of the pass rush is imperative. Using formations with Blake Jarwin on his side of the ball could help, as even when rushers align on his outside shoulder he can get a hand on them initially before releasing out to his route.
And last, but certainly not least, the Cowboys could always keep Ezekiel Elliott in to help protect Erving. Elliott is one of the best blocking backs in the entire league, so leaving him in to block could be as valuable as having him release as a receiver, at least in Week 1.
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Use hard play-action to attack the linebackers
The Rams linebackers are very young and lack the respect of draft capital, service time, and athleticism. With the unknown on the offensive line in Week 1, it would behoove the Cowboys to exploit that inexperience by using hard play-action bootlegs to attack the flats opposite of the flow with Jarwin.
This is a good plan for the Cowboys offense in the opening week of the 2020 season for a few reasons. This allows Jarwin to become a bigger presence early in the game than one might assume given the trio of receivers the Cowboys possess. The zone-blocking flow, when done correctly as it is above, seals the rush opposite the direction of the bootleg. And finally, it takes Donald on a different initial path than directly at Prescott, which is never a bad idea.
Prescott must account for unblocked defenders
In the play below, there is a defender left unblocked by design. One thing the Cowboys signal-caller has improved drastically is his ability to deliver the ball under pressure. He’s also done a fantastic job of upgrading his escape plan and avoid initial rushers.
As with the above play, Prescott must be able to make plays out of structure when the opportunities present themselves. In the 2019 matchup, the Cowboys went at veteran Clay Matthews in the run game, making him the unblocked player in several option plays, the first of which Prescott kept the ball and scampered for a nice gain.
It’ll be interesting to see if the departure of Travis Fredrick complicates things from a communication and protection standpoint on the offensive line. Joe Looney is a grizzled veteran at this point, but it’s unknown to this point if Prescott will have more on his plate in terms of calling or audibling from one protection to another.
Run away from Aaron Donald
There has been a long-standing idea that the way to beat Donald in the run game is to run it right at him. That old adage is patently ridiculous. He didn’t become the most dominant player in the league by being a one-trick pony. Despite recent arguments made on Twitter that he hurts his team by easily penetrating and forcing backs in different directions, he simply shouldn’t be tested if it’s not absolutely necessary.
Now, when he’s lined up opposite of Martin by all means run behind the All-Pro guard. I want them to. That’s two of the best at their position dueling it out. Nothing gets better than that. However, we should all be able to agree that, although Xavier Su’a-Filo isn’t necessarily a starting-caliber lineman, he’s certainly thought of as the more powerful player between him and Connor Williams.
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Watch the above play. Donald bubbles Su’a-Filo back nearly into the feet of the pulling Tyron Smith. The young man is a muscle-bound missile who can affect a play yards behind the line. There is no “attacking” that if he’s not going up against your best on the offensive line.
The Cowboys offense needs to be prepared to adapt to the unknown of the Ram defensive scheme in Week 1
With the departure of Wade Phillips, we don’t necessarily know what the Rams defense will look like. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense to go to a four-down linemen look given their current personnel, so expect to see five guys across the line often without necessarily knowing where the outside rush will come from.
In the secondary, there might be a bigger chance we see a secondary that looks like Vic Fangio’s two-high system. The young, green defensive coordinator Brandon Staley last called plays at John Carroll University. This could mean that we see a larger percentage of match-based looks from the 37-year old play-caller. Prescott will have to be careful to catch the disguise these defenses present, along with exploiting the big-play potential the scheme allows at times as well.