Week 15 Preview: Cowboys Have (Another) Golden Opportunity – Sports Illustrated

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Week 15 Preview: Cowboys Have (Another) Golden Opportunity – Sports Illustrated
NFL Week 15 Preview

1a. The Cowboys defense has issues—most recently an outright refusal to tackle opposing players. The absence of Leighton Vander Esch has been felt, Sean Lee is showing his age, Jaylon Smith is having a down year, and the safety play has been embarrassing since apparently-all-world safety Jeff Heath went down. If they choose to not tackle, as they did in making the Trubisky Bears look like a reasonable facsimile of a professional-ish football offense last Thursday night, Dallas is going to give up a lot of points to the Rams on Sunday.

However, this is a good matchup for Dallas, and it really is a game they should win. This Rams offense has had some nightmare performances in 2019 when the offensive line hasn’t held up. L.A. might have gotten the better of that crappy Seahawks pass rush last Sunday night, but the Cowboys are so much better up front. Demarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett (if he plays) against this Rams front five is a mismatch, and Dallas should be able to completely short-circuit the Rams’ passing game.

Though one thing to keep in mind is that, when these teams met in the conference semifinals last January, the Rams’ offensive line dominated in the trenches. Center John Sullivan—a solid, reliable technician—looked like the Incredible Hulk in the original screenplay Hulk Covers the Spread that I recently submitted to the folks at Disney+. After the game, Austin Blythe said the Cowboys had some tells when it came to their games up front. You would think the Cowboys are aware of that and have acted in some way to combat it. (But, then, you’ve thought a lot of things about the 2019 Cowboys that haven’t come to fruition.)

1b. Another thing to keep in mind is that Amari Cooper probably has to do something in this game. He’ll likely have Jalen Ramsey following him. Cooper’s worst games of 2019—at New Orleans Week 4, at Jets Week 6, at New England Week 12, at Chicago last week (until garbage time)—have all been Dallas losses.

1c. Also, what it this mess? The Cowboys can’t afford to invite bad karma at this point, so why is Jaylon Smith celebrating over an injured opponent two Thursdays ago?

Smith later apologized and said he didn’t realize Wims was hurt. Though he did seem to look directly at him as Wims writhed on the ground, but . . . O.K., let’s not be cynical. Still, you’re never going to win the Lady Bing Trophy doing stuff like this, guy.

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2. The 2019 Steelers smell a lot like the 2017 Bills and also a little like teen spirit: a defense that’s carrying an enormous load (third in total defense and first in takeaways since adding Minkah Fitzpatrick), a limited passing offense, and a lot of wins in tight games. Pittsburgh has won seven of eight and they’re 6-0 in games decided by one possession during that stretch. (The Bills, during their surprise 9-7 playoff season in 2017, went 6-2 in one-possession games.)

The Sunday night Bills-Steelers matchup will feature two defenses that rank top-five in passing defense and passing plays of 25-plus yards allowed. The Steelers will surely once again ask Duck Hodges not to lose it. But will the Bills ask Josh Allen to win it? He’s been erratic with downfield accuracy all season (though his ability to stretch the field vertically and horizontally—especially on second-reaction plays—must be respected and puts enormous stress on opposing defenses, which is why anyone arguing that Hodges holds anywhere near the same value as Allen has a fundamental misunderstanding of quarterback play). But, with the Steelers’ ability to take the ball away, and in a tough road environment, and coming off a shaky performance in last week’s loss to Baltimore, Buffalo might play it safe and engage in the field-position battle. If that’s the case, which team will blink first?

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3. Ryan Tannehill is playing out of his mind and everyone is trying to figure out just why. It’s likely due in part to the small sample size, with a regression to come over the next calendar year (we won’t go too deep into it, but Next Gen Stats has him at a league-high +10% in completion percentage over expected completion percentage). Another factor, as pointed out by Ted Nguyen over at The Athletic, seems to be his performance throwing to the deep-intermediate levels, often off of play-action, when he’s averaging an absurd 14 yards per attempt.

Two facts: (1) You don’t need to “establish the run” in order for play-action to affect the defense—linebackers read and react to what they see up front. (2) Tannehill was an erratic play-action passer during his time in Miami, including downright terrible a year ago.

Working off of the first point, while you don’t need a great running game for play-action to work, perhaps play-action becomes more effective when you have a back like Derrick Henry. It’s not just that Henry is great, it’s that everyone’s gameplan for stopping him is to get to him as early in the down as possible—he can be slow to get going, but he’s a nightmare once he has a head of steam. So, knowing that Henry is in the backfield, do linebackers bite even harder on play-action knowing that they want to get to him sooner rather than later? If so, that explains the wide-open spaces behind the linebacker level. And that would go a long way toward explaining Tannehill’s breakout season. 

The Titans can take control of the AFC South with a win over Houston on Sunday (they then finish the year at Houston). Considering the Texans’ back-seven often looks like they’re cosplaying a Benny Hill skit, there should be plenty of opportunities for Tannehill on Sunday.

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4. Based on the information below, see if you can identify each:

PLAYER 1: 6.58 yards/attempt, 19 TD, 7 INT, while throwing to Pro Bowl slot receiver with three 1,000-yard seasons, veteran WR acquired for second-round pick, 2015 first-round pick, 2019 first-round pick who’s missed nine games, 28-year-old former All-Pro WR released after six games, veteran TE who’s missed six games

PLAYER 2: 6.91 yards/attempt, 18 TD, 6 INT, while throwing to Pro Bowl WR who has missed six games, 2019 second-round WR who has missed six games, No. 1 TE who has missed two games, formerly undrafted TE whose never had a 700-yard season, three undrafted WRs (in second, third and fourth NFL seasons)

PLAYER 3: Tony Award win for work in Evita, seven Primetime Emmy nominations including one win

Give up? PLAYER 1 is Tom Brady. PLAYER 2 is Jacoby Brissett. PLAYER 3 is the delightful Mandy Patinkin, star of stage and screen.

The point is, while we rightfully mourn the state of Tom Brady’s weaponry (why trade a 2 for Mohamed Sanu instead of Emmanuel Sanders if you want receivers who can separate?), Brady’s collective weaponry has much more in the way of pedigree and track record than the group Brissett has been working with, yet Brissett has outperformed him in 2019. (And, yet, there are Colts fans who want to move on from him.)

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5. The Patriots taping the Bengals’ sideline and then explaining that it was for a video series is either the worst decision a team’s production crew has ever made or football operations failing to realize the film Argo was a critical and commercial success.

There has to be some kind of punishment, and the best argument for leniency is probably the fact the Patriots have been so comedically over-punished in the past (four-game suspension sounds about right for a quarterback having maybe considered thinking about approaching someone to ask about the possibility of letting a slight amount of air out of footballs and then not consenting to the NFL’s request for a full-body cavity search and 24-hour surveillance to find out). So maybe a $50,000 fine and call the folks at Circuit City and ask them not to sell blank VHS tapes to Bill Belichick anymore.

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6. So does Matt Nagy have anything else up his sleeve? Two Thursdays ago, he finally let Mitchell Trubisky loose in the run game, taking advantage of his quarterback’s ability to run and covering up his quarterback’s inability to throw (though the hesitancy to do that in past weeks might have had something to do with the separated non-throwing shoulder Trubisky suffered earlier this season). There’s a good chance the Bears are going to need something more when they travel to Lambeau Field on Sunday.

In the season opener, the Packers overloaded Trubisky’s brain with various disguised coverages. The return to the QB run might have caught the Cowboys off-guard last game, but the element surprise is done now. And in 12 road games over the past two seasons, Trubisky is averaging 6.57 yards/attempt with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Chicago has clawed their way to the back of the playoff chase, thanks in part to that strategic tweak against Dallas (and, well, thanks to Matthew Stafford’s broken back and an early-season gift from the officials in Denver). They also bring back all-world DT Akiem Hicks in time to face Green Bay’s uneven offense. Can they manufacture enough offense to topple the Packers this time around?

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7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . John Lennon!

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