Football is a game of matchups. With their devastating defensive line, the Cincinnati Bengals match up quite well with the Cowboys. The ‘Boys will need to capitalize on a few advantages they hold over Cincinnati—size on the outside and the possibility of running on the perimeter—in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Get Dez Bryant involved early.
Bryant was able to overcome a slow start last week in which he didn’t see a target until near the end of the first half. Bryant went on to post 98 yards and two scores, but he also caught all six of his targets. Even though Bryant has been extremely efficient in hauling in 68.9 percent of his 103 targets, he obviously can’t be expected to continue to catch every ball thrown his way. In a normal game in which he receives only six targets, the most likely reception total is only four. Even if the Bengals double Bryant, Tony Romo needs to look his way. Don’t forget that he’ll be facing a secondary whose biggest player stands only 5’11’’ and 199 pounds. Ideally, you’d like to see Bryant’s targets fall in the range of A.J. Green’s average on the season—10.
Run behind Tyron Smith.
It’s no surprise that the Cowboys are most efficient when running behind left tackle Tyron Smith. That works out well for them this week. Cincinnati has one of the league’s premiere run-stopping defensive ends in Carlos Dunlap; Dunlap has recorded a tackle on 11.5 percent of his run snaps—the highest mark for any 4-3 end in the NFL. Luckily, Dunlap plays almost exclusively on the left side of Cincinnati’s defense, meaning he’ll be matched up primarily with Doug Free. Free is going to lose that battle, but Smith should be able to get something going on Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson is an outstanding pass-rusher, but his tackle percentage ranks him just 43rd in the league among seven-technique defensive ends.
On top of that, defensive tackle Geno Atkins will be lurking in the middle of the field. Atkins is the top defensive tackle in the NFL right now, hands down. Look for the ‘Boys to run to the left perimeter, away from Atkins and Dunlap.
Bring out the screen game.
In all likelihood, the Cowboys will have some trouble providing Tony Romo with ample protection. Atkins and Dunlap, at the very least, are going to win their battles with the middle and right side of the Cowboys’ offensive line. One of the best ways to slow down the rush is to run screen passes—something we’ve seen very infrequently in 2012. Actually, Jason Garrett has called only 17 screens all season, nine of which have been to receivers. Thus, Dallas has averaged fewer than one screen to a running back per game this year. Even if they’re marginally effective, a handful of well-timed screens could help set up bigger plays through the air.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.