Mandatory Credit: Photo by Adam Hunger/AP/Shutterstock (13425833a) Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush (10) warms up before playing against the New York Giants in an NFL football game, in East Rutherford, N.J Cowboys Giants Football, East Rutherford, United States – 26 Sep 2022
Dallas Cowboys (3-1) at Los Angeles Rams (2-2)
Game time: Sunday, 3:25 p.m. CST
TV/radio: FOX / SiriusXM 385, 105.3 The Fan, KVMK 107.5 La Grande
What’s at stake: A fourth straight win would allow the Cowboys to continue to play it safe with injured starting quarterback Dak Prescott. Things looked bleak when Prescott went down late in a 19-3 loss to Tampa Bay, but in stepped backup Cooper Rush, and the ‘Boys have run off three straight wins. That has allowed the Cowboys not to rush Prescott back to action with an injury that doctors initially said would take four to six weeks to heal. It would also give the Cowboys wins over both of last year’s Super Bowl participants and put the rest of the NFC on notice, with a key divisional matchup against a possibly unbeaten Philadelphia looming next week on Sunday Night Football.
When the Cowboys have the ball: With starter Dak Prescott out for at least another week, the offense will again run through Cooper Rush. But this game will come down to how well the Cowboys’ offensive line will hold up under the play-after-play assault from the Rams’ defense. Can rookie Tyler Smith win enough battles with Aaron Donald? With Jason Peters likely out Sunday, can left guard Connor McGovern exact his will in the running game to keep the Rams’ defense honest? All questions that will be asked and answered over 60 minutes on Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium.
When the Rams have the ball: Quarterback Matthew Stafford has plenty of weapons on offense, but it all starts with Cooper Kupp. The NFL’s triple crown (most yards, receptions, and touchdowns) winner last season is off to another great start this season. With 402 yards and three touchdowns, he continues to be the go-to weapon for Stafford. But they have more, in tight end Tyler Higbee and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Ben Skowronek. Where the Rams are vulnerable is an offensive line that has given up 16 sacks, the second most in the NFL. That should have the mouths watering of the NFL’s second-best defense at getting after the quarterback.
Key Cowboys to watch:
LB Leighton Vander Esch – The Cowboys’ middle linebacker has quietly been one of the backbones of the 2022 version of the Doomsday Defense. Vander Esch has been in on 27 tackles this season, including a third-quarter sack of Joe Burrow while playing close to 90 percent of the defensive snaps this season. Injured in 2019 and 2020, where he played in just 19 of 32 games, Vander Esch will be playing in his 22nd straight game when he lines up against the Rams on Sunday.
TEs Dalton Schultz and Jake Ferguson – The Cowboys, who love to play out of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends), will need both tight ends to have success if they want to beat the Rams. Both Schultz and Ferguson will play an important role in how the Cowboys block the Rams’ front seven. With a pair of tackles that never started an NFL game before this season, the Cowboys’ offensive line will need help with a Rams pass rush featuring Aaron Donald, A’Shawn Robinson, Leonard Floyd, and Bobby Wagner. It will be a day of chips, double teams, scoops, and J blocks for Schultz and Ferguson.
RT Terrence Steele – Steele has been a pleasant surprise on the offensive line this season. The undrafted tackle out of Texas Tech took over for La’el Collins, and the Cowboys offense hasn’t missed a beat; in fact, it has been better. After a rough opener against Tampa Bay with four penalties (3 false starts, 1 holding) for 25 yards, Steele hasn’t been flagged in 186 total snaps in wins over the Bengals, Giants, and Commanders. Steele, who has struggled with pass blocking in the past, will have his hands full on Sunday with the Rams’ pass rush.
PK Brett Maher – Maher and the kicking game become more important this week after the Cowboys lost long snapper Jake McQuaid to a season-ending upper-body injury. There is nothing more important in the kicking game than timing, and that starts with the long snapper. The Cowboys have relied on Maher for nearly half – 35 of 71 – of their points this season, so watch this aspect of the Cowboys’ game plan closely this week.
The bottom line: Like most NFL games these days, this one will be won up front in the trenches. Can the Cowboys’ offensive line block the pass rush, pick up stunts, and read defensive schemes well enough for the offense to put enough points on the board? If so, everything will be cheery for Cowboys fans come Sunday night. If not, the defending Super Bowl champs will make it difficult all afternoon for backup quarterback Cooper Rush to do what he has done for the last three games – produce mistake-free football in crunch time.