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Thursday, September 29, 2011
Can the Cowboys stop Matthew Stafford?

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

I like reading the Dallas Cowboys blog on ESPNDallas.com. We have so many people covering that team for that site that it's a constant cacophony of voices and insight and information. I'm on there 12 times a day if I'm on there once.

One thing they do every week that I enjoy is their "Five Star Question," where they pose a question about the upcoming game and five different writers post their answer to it. It's on there now, though you may have to scroll down a bit to find the posts. This week's question is, "Will the Cowboys hold Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford under his average of 325.6 yards passing per game?"

Four of the five panelists said no. Only one -- Todd Archer -- said yes:
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.

I think it's fair to make both points Todd makes in his post -- that the Cowboys will be the best defense the Lions have faced thus far and that the Lions' offense will be the stiffest test yet for the Cowboys' surprisingly strong starting defense. But it's the latter point on which I'd like to focus, since this is the NFC East blog and Kevin Seifert is better qualified to evaluate whether the Lions are for real.

Pressure is one thing, and it's something at which the Cowboys are very good. But the Lions' offense isn't just about Stafford-to-Johnson. They use the screen game well. They like to get running back Jahvid Best out on the edge and throw it to him. Stafford has games where he throws like crazy to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. They throw and throw and throw in a million different ways, and their goal is to find the one that works. If the pressure is too intense to give Johnson time to get open downfield, Stafford has other, closer options and the wherewithal to find them.

That means Cowboys outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, so outstanding at getting into the backfield, are going to have to showcase their underrated run-stopping abilities Sunday. It means more reliance on NFC Defensive Player of the Month Sean Lee and his ballhawking ability. If the Cowboys' defense stops the Lions Sunday, it will have been because of those one-on-one battles at the second level, where Stafford's safety valves operate. Those are the matchups I'm watching in this game. I know they can't stop Calvin Johnson, because no one can. And I know they can get pressure on Stafford, because other teams have. What I don't know is what will happen once Stafford sees the pressure and reacts to it. That's where the Cowboys need to be focused Sunday, if they want to stop the 3-0 Lions.