Dallas Cowboys: Al Harris
No. 1-ranked rush defense.
Phil Costa is coming off one of his worst games and needs to get some confidence back, but it will be very difficult against Laurinaitis, who is all over the field. Laurinaitis is similar to the Cowboys' Sean Lee. The Cowboys have to be careful to not allow Laurinaitis to go unblocked because he has the ability to read quickly, then shoot gaps to get tackles for loss.
Other than Chris Long, the Rams' defensive linemen really struggle to get off blocks, so there will be opportunities in the running game. But if Costa struggles, you will know it very quickly.
Cowboys run D vs. Rams RB Steven Jackson: Through six weeks, Rob Ryan's defense is ranked first in the league against the run. The Rams, like the Cowboys, have had their share of problems in the running game, but it’s not because of the effort or ability of Jackson.
The last time these two teams met Jackson gashed the Cowboys for 160 yards. Jackson has always held a grudge against the Cowboys for not drafting him in 2004. To his credit, he has made Dallas look foolish for not taking him that day.
With quarterback Sam Bradford unable to play because of a high ankle sprain, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will turn to A.J. Feeley and try to establish the run with Jackson. In my view, the Cowboys' front seven should be able to do the job.
Cowboys WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant vs. Rams CB Al Harris: Several years ago, this might have been a good matchup for Harris, but now it’s a big mismatch. Harris, a 14-year veteran, can no longer play at the level he once played at for so many years.
Injuries have robbed him of much of the skill he once had. He no longer has that burst, quickness or speed he used to. Harris now struggles to maintain any type of positioning in the route.
There are times when he is peeking in the backfield or guessing on the route. Last week against the Packers, wide receiver Jordy Nelson beat him on a slant-and-go for a big touchdown. Later in the same game, Aaron Rodgers pump-faked him out of coverage to bite on a route.
There is no doubt in my mind that either Austin or Bryant can run by Harris in the vertical game for a big play. Harris just doesn’t run well enough. When you play corner, that’s a huge problem. On the other side, cornerback Justin King has struggled to cover the deep pass, as well.
After two difficult losses against the Lions and the Patriots, the Cowboys face the St. Louis Rams in a contest where both teams need a win in the worst way.
The Rams were picked by many as preseason NFC West favorites with Sam Bradford at quarterback. Instead they are 0-5 and really not doing anything well on offense or defense.
The Rams are hurting the most on the offensive line, which is surprising because they have invested high draft picks in tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. Safford is the starter at left tackle and is the best of the Rams’ offensive linemen. Smith was drafted with the third overall selection of the 2009 NFL Draft and really hasn’t lived up to the billing.
At 6-foot-4 and 318 pounds, Saffold looks a lot longer on tape. Tends to come off the ball high at times and without much bend in the knees. Saffold is a catch blocker more than a puncher. He will place his hands on the rusher then try to steer them away from the ball or up the field. He will do a nice job of running his man up the field.
Smith tends to play without power but can run, which is his way of getting out of trouble. Cowboys rookie right tackle Tyron Smith already plays like a better player than Jason Smith, who is going into his third season with the Rams. Of the two St. Louis tackles, Smith is the one that gets the most help from tight ends and backs that stay in the game to block.
The weakest position on the offensive line for the Rams is at right guard. Harvey Dahl was signed as a free agent by the Rams from the Falcons on July 31, and the more you study him, the more you feel like that is was money poorly spent.
I am going to be real honest, there is nothing about Dahl’s game to like. If you think that the Cowboys have had problems at left guard, the Rams have had it worse with the way that Dahl has played. Dahl will pull and miss. He is not athletic enough to execute the cut-off block or keep his man from overpowering him in the passing game.
I have talked about for weeks how Rob Ryan has done a nice job of identifying the offensive line’s weakest link that needs to be attacked to create the best matchups to win. Ryan should take advantage of Dahl several times this game.
The two best players on the Rams offense are Bradford and running back Steven Jackson. I have always been a big Bradford supporter. Watching him play down after down, there is no reason to change that thought.
Bradford, who might not play Sunday due to a high ankle sprain, had better offensive talent around him college at Oklahoma. Despite all that, he is able to make all the throws. He is accurate and mobile, but this ankle injury that might limit him from making some plays with his legs.
Bradford has a nice feel in the pocket and is able to slide and move to buy a second chance. The Rams like to run waggles, dragging the tight ends from the opposite side, so it will be interesting with this injury if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will still make this part of the game plan.
The Rams are last in the NFL in rushing offense, but if you use the Jason Garrett theory, the Rams run the ball poorly because they are always behind in games and need to pass to try to get back into games. The problems I see again fall more on the offensive line than they do on Jackson.
While I am on the subject of Jackson, our scouting department had a first-round grade on him, but there some medical concerns at the time with a back injury. When it came our time to pick, the Buffalo Bills called and wanted to offer us the next year’s first-round selection for our pick at that time. The discussion in the draft room at the time were that Julius Jones, who we had in the second round, was just as good of a back. Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells agreed and we made the deal with the Bills. For that selection the following year, we drafted Marcus Spears.
In looking back in that draft, we made a mistake on Jackson. I believe that we had the right grade on the board, but we had the wrong vision for the player and what he would become in his career.
Jackson is not an explosive player, but he is consistent in the way he attacks. Will try to bounce more balls to the outside than he will take inside. The Rams have some success with him when they get in the gun, then hand the ball to him on the inside.
McDaniels also likes to try and throw him the ball on screens. He will sneak out of the back field, then mesh with the line.
If Jackson does struggle, it is as a pass protector. As much as Ryan likes to bring pressure from all angles, this will be a difficult task for him. As the game develops, watch how many screens that the Rams run and if they use Jackson in pass blocking.
On the outside, the Rams made a deal at the trade deadline for some help. Brandon Lloyd joins the squad after a stint with the Broncos. There are a couple of ways to look at this for the Rams. The most important way is that it’s another weapon for Bradford on a team that has failed to address the wide receiver position the last two years.
Sure, the Rams have drafted receivers but none that could be a difference maker. Lloyd has that chance and should be ready to hit the ground running in this offense because he was with McDaniels at the Broncos.
The one thing that the Cowboys on defense might not be able to count on is turnovers from the quarterback. Bradford is one of the best in the league at not throwing interceptions.
When you study the Rams, it’s a defense that appears to be very talent poor. There are two players that really stood out: middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Chris Long.
The Rams drafted defensive end Robert Quinn in the first round in 2011, but like tackle Jason Smith, he hasn’t made the impact that they had hoped for. When you are playing with 14-year veteran Al Harris at corner, your defense is going to have some issues.
Laurinaitis is a very similar to what Sean Lee is for the Cowboys. He can run, he reads the play quickly, he reacts and he tackles well. Laurinaitis has a real nose for the ball. He is a sideline to sideline player. He does a nice job in coverage. Did not see an effective blitzer in the early games I studied against the Giants and Ravens.
As a pass rusher, defensive end Chris Long is a relentless player but doesn’t play with the rush skill of what the Cowboys offensive tackles have seen the early part of this year. Tyron Smith needs to have a bounce-back game after not being at his best last week. Long will not be able to use power against Smith, which is the one area that gives him the most trouble.
The Cowboys should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Rams’ down linemen, who struggle getting off blocks. Again, the key here will be the inside players for the Cowboys, mainly Montrae Holland working with Phil Costa and Kyle Kosier to not allow Laurinaitis to make all the tackles.
I also look for the Cowboys offensively to have some success throwing the ball. The Rams’ secondary have struggled with coverage at the corner with Harris and Justin King. Against the Ravens, King was beaten badly on several deep, vertical routes that went for touchdowns.
Look for Garrett to test this secondary to try and make some deep throws down the field to try and stretch this Rams defense that has limited range with safeties Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl.
We'll look at one matchup on both sides of the ball:
Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff vs. Packers LG Daryn Colledge
The relentless Ratliff is one of the NFL's premier interior pass rushers. Colledge ranks second in the league in sacks allowed (7.25), according to Stats, Inc.
Of course, the Packers will try to avoid letting Ratliff work one-on-one against Colledge. But look for Wade Phillips to create some of those opportunities for Ratliff in the nickel package, when he lines up over the guard in a four-man front. It helps that the Packers won't want to leave LT Chad Clifton alone against DeMarcus Ware.
Ratliff had two sacks in last week's win over the Philadelphia Eagles. It wouldn't be surprising if he matches that total Sunday in Green Bay. Nickel DT Stephen Bowen is also capable of exposing Colledge's problems in pass protection.
Cowboys WRs vs. Packers CB Jarrett Bush
If Miles Austin gets matched up against Bush, that's a major mismatch. It might look like a replay of his big-play performance against the Packers last season, when he had two catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. There's no reason Roy Williams shouldn't be able to beat Bush, too, especially if Green Bay rolls coverage toward Austin.
Harris has been able to contain Williams in their meetings over the years. In Williams' rookie year with the Lions, he was held to just one catch with Harris as the primary defender. In 2005, Harris broke up a pass intended for Williams in the end zone.
But in 2006, Williams had a seven-catch, 138-yard performance -- one TD -- while being covered by Harris. It was the fourth-best receiving-yards day in Williams' career.
That same season, Harris intercepted a pass intended for Williams which set up a game-tying field goal.
And they'll meet again Sunday.
"Al is a shut-down corner -- one of the best in the game in my opinion," said Williams, who has 21 catches for 308 yards with two touchdowns in seven career games vs. the Packers. "A guy who can play one-on-one. We have to work to defeat those guys and we'll see what happens."
The emergence of Miles Austin, who has six touchdown catches the last four weeks, could have Harris guarding him instead of Williams. Green Bay likes to play man-to-man defense with its corners, and sometimes they jam receivers at the line of scrimmage
"It makes me excited," Williams said of Harris. "We've had battles for five years now, going back to my Detroit days. He knows me. I know him. May the best man win.
"Al usually travels with me, probably not this time."
Then last season, Austin had just two catches -- but they went for 115 yards, including a spectacular 63-yard score that was the first of his career. Austin almost had another touchdown in that game but was caught on his way to the end zone for a 52-yard gain.
"If I look back at that game, I look at the touchdown, rather than the other one," Austin said.
The Philadelphia Eagles' defense showed Austin some respect last week by doubling him with a safety over the top. Austin didn't have a catch until the fourth quarter, when he beat cornerback Sheldon Brown on a slant-and-go -- helped by quarterback Tony Romo's pump fake -- for a 49-yard touchdown reception.
"I don't know what to expect," Austin said. We'll look at the film work at how they had been playing, and you never know how they will play in the game."