Dallas Cowboys: Five-star W4

Five-star question: Will the Cowboys hold Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford under his average of 325.6 yards passing per game?

I don’t see it happening.

No way.

The Lions try to run, but they’re not really committed to it, so the Cowboys’ ability to make them one-dimensional won’t be that big a deal this week.

More important, Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman can’t cover Megatron, also known as Calvin Johnson. Jason Garrett calls him arguably the best player - not just receiver - in the game.

Then there’s tight end Brandon Pettigrew, a constant reminder of the Roy Williams trade, who caught 11 passes last week.

But the biggest reason the Cowboys won’t hold Stafford under his average is that he’s playing great football right now. He can make any throw you want, and he’s averaging 8.28 yards per attempt.

That’s an indication the line is giving him an opportunity to make throws downfield. Minnesota sacked him five times, and he still threw for 378 yards.

The Cowboys’ pass rush was inconsistent against the Redskins, though it was strong in the fourth quarter. Struggle to rush the passer this week, and Stafford might pass for 400 yards.
Five-star question: Will the Cowboys hold Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford under his average of 325.6 yards passing per game?
Nope.

This is the first real quarterback the Cowboys have seen this season and the first real receiver, Calvin Johnson, the team will face. Johnson is a big imposing figure that beats you deep and short. The Cowboys don't have the length to contend with Johnson. Yes, Cowboys Killer Santana Moss took on the Cowboys in Week 3, but he doesn't have the skill set as Johnson, right now. While the Cowboys pass rush has been solid this season, NFL leading 13 sacks, it's been against Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith and Rex Grossman.

Stafford, while sacked five times this season, has completed 66.9 percent of his passes and doesn't get rattled under pressure. He's thrown two interceptions the first three weeks but more importantly he's got a 110.7 passer rating, third in the NFL and he's second in the league in touchdowns with nine, trailing Tom Brady.

The Cowboys offense struggles in the red zone, not the Lions. This is where Stafford excels. The Lions are sixth in the league with eight touchdowns in 13 red zone drives, a 61.5 percent rate. It's going to be hard to slow down these Lions, especially Stafford, that is only getting better as a passer.

Five-star answer: Ryan won't stop Stafford

September, 29, 2011
9/29/11
9:15
AM ET
Five-star question: Will the Cowboys hold Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford under his average of 325.6 yards passing per game?

You can count on Rob Ryan to come up with schemes to confuse a young quarterback. He’ll surely find a way to stop, or at least slow down, Matthew Stafford’s early-season success.

Right?

Don’t be so sure.

The history favors Stafford in this quarterback-coordinator matchup. His best performance as a pro came against Ryan in Detroit’s win over Cleveland a couple of years ago. Stafford set rookie records with 422 yards – since broken by Cam Newton – and five touchdowns, including the game-winning score with no time remaining after suffering a shoulder injury.

Yes, Ryan clearly has more talent to work with in Dallas than he did in Cleveland, especially when it comes to pass-rushers. The Browns didn’t have a DeMarcus Ware-type talent wreaking havoc off the edge.

But Stafford’s supporting cast is much stronger, too. Calvin Johnson has continued his development into an elite receiver, and the Lions have invested first-round picks in tight end Brandon Pettigrew and running back Jahvid Best, the second and third options in a potent passing game.

The Cowboys rank a 12th in passing defense (226.7 yards per game), which is particularly respectable considering their injury problems at cornerback. But Stafford is better than Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith and Rex Grossman. And no receiver the Cowboys have covered is close to Johnson’s class.

Expect another average day by Stafford’s standards.
Five-star question: Will the Cowboys hold Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford under his average of 325.6 yards passing per game?

There is no doubt that this will be the stiffest test for this Cowboys defense, quarterback-wise, in Matthew Stafford.

He has command of his game right now and his receiving weapons include Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best and Nate Burleson. I believe the Cowboys' defense under Rob Ryan will be able to control three of the four players mentioned, but it's going to take a huge effort.

Ryan has done a nice job of mixing his fronts and coverages to not allow opposing quarterbacks to feel comfortable in the pocket. Stafford is a smart quarterback and he will be in a battle with Ryan all day to try and match protections against blitzes.

I see Ryan attacking Stafford and trying to get to him before he can get the ball out. The Cowboys will pressure the pocket, but do it with various looks. Where they have to be careful is in the way they tackle. If the Cowboys tackle poorly there is a good chance that these Lions skill players will have big days and Stafford will get his average.

With Terence Newman back in the lineup and Mike Jenkins playing with more confidence, the only real question will be at nickel and the play of Alan Ball. Until Orlando Scandrick gets back in the role of the slot corner there will continue to be that question. In the end, Ryan will get pressure and the secondary will hold up and Stafford will be held under his average.

Five-star answer: Pressure holds Stafford

September, 29, 2011
9/29/11
9:05
AM ET
Five-star question: Will the Cowboys hold Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford under his average of 325.6 yards passing per game?

Last year the Cowboys made superheroes out of middle-of-the-road quarterbacks, including Shaun Hill, who started for the Lions in last year’s meeting. Hill completed 32 of 47 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns.

With the way Stafford has started in 2011, he has been anything but middle of the road. He has thrown nine touchdown passes and two interceptions in leading the Lions to a 3-0 start.

But he has not faced a pass defense that is better than 21st in the first three games, beating Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Minnesota.

The Cowboys have the 12th-ranked pass defense and lead the NFL with 13 sacks. A similar argument can be made against Dallas’ decent rating. The New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez, San Francisco’s Alex Smith and Washington’s Rex Grossman are hardly elite passers.

So what gives on Sunday?

If we learned anything from 2010, it is that pressure makes a secondary better. The Cowboys will pressure Stafford, who has been sacked five times this season, into quicker throws. Left tackle Jeff Backus struggled last week vs. Minnesota’s Jared Allen, and the Lions have not seen such a diverse pass rush yet.

Stafford might throw for big yards with Calvin Johnson having an advantage on the Cowboys’ cornerbacks, but he will not reach his average.

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