The Dallas Cowboys travel to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego to take on the Chargers on Sunday afternoon with a chance to put some distance between themselves and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East.
Using a devastating running game and a fierce pass rush the Cowboys (2-1) totaled six sacks of Sam Bradford in the 31-7 romp over St. Louis, Bradford hadn’t been sacked once in the Rams’ first two games, Dallas now has an NFC-leading 11 sacks.
The Chargers (1-2) due to a leaky defense have blown leads in all of three games in the fourth quarter. Philip Rivers is on tap for a career year thus far and in the Bolts only win against the Eagles in Week 2, he threw for a career-high 419 yards.
Series History: The Cowboys have played the Chargers nine times in their history with Dallas holding a 6-3 lead overall. In games played in San Diego, Dallas also leads with a 4-1 advantage. However in the last meeting in 2009 in Dallas, the Chargers won 20-17 as Rivers threw for 272 yards and a touchdown to Antonio Gates.
Here is a look at some of the key matchups for Sunday’s contest:
DeMarco Murray vs the Chargers front seven: The Chargers defense is currently 28th in the NFL against the run and are facing a rejuvenated Dallas running game that pounded the Rams and took a lot of pressure off Tony Romo and the passing game.
Demarco Murray finally got untracked last week against a good Rams run defense and gained 175 yards and a touchdown. It was his first 100 yard effort since opening day of the 2012 season and his running on first and second downs opened up the field for the entire offense.
“When you get a runner like that going, you can feed on him,” Cowboys’ Head Coach Jason Garrett said. “He gets a little contagious for everybody. Everybody starts feeling it.”
Murray’s running allowed Tony Romo to throw only 24 passes, his lowest total in 2 years and give the Cowboys the balance they’ve been lacking. Look for the Cowboys to mix things up again and feed Murray the ball against a suspect run defense giving up 130 yards per game.
Dallas Passing Game vs San Diego Secondary: One of the benefits of the running game being successful it makes play-action passes so much more effective and this week, the Cowboys will be looking to single up Dez Bryant on corners Shareece Wright and Derek Cox by having the safeties cheat up in the box trying to help the running game.
Jason Witten will also be looked to in this game to get behind the Bolts linebackers and attack down the seams. Miles Austin is expected to miss this game with a bad hamstring so rookie WR Terrance Williams is expected to start.
San Diego is currently 32nd or dead last in the NFL against the pass giving up an average of 309 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks have a QB Rating of 109.0 with 6 TDs against only 1 INT yet the Chargers remain upbeat and plan to rattle Romo.
DE Corey Liuget says “We know that once he’s (Romo) rattled and whatnot, it’s easy to take him out of the game.”
“It’s a simple offense. They don’t do too many plays. The key is to definitely hit Romo early and try to take Romo out of the game and put the ball in DeMarco Murray’s hands.”
Dallas Pass Rush vs Philip Rivers: Rivers is having a big year throwing 8 TDs to only 1 INT, a big change from the many turnovers he’s had in recent years. And after being sacked 49 times in 2012, he’s only been dropped five times thus far.
With Anthony Spencer done for the season, one would think the Cowboys pass rush would be suffering, but it hasn’t been the case. George Selvie, playing in place of Spencer has two sacks and Jason Hatcher providing interior pressure has been a consistent presence in opponents’ backfields recording a sack in each game.
But it has been the stellar play of DeMarcus Ware (4 sacks) who has led the defensive charge. Last week Ware moved past Harvey Martin’s franchise record with his 115th sack in a Cowboys uniform.
“I can’t say that it is unexpected because of how hard he works, and his talent level, and his competitiveness,” Dallas owner Jerry Jones said.
This week the Chargers will start Mike Harris at LT against Ware as King Dunlap is out with a concussion. That is a big mismatch and will demand Harris have help in the matter of a double team or keeping backs in to help out.
Chargers Receivers vs Dallas Secondary: If Rivers gets the time to throw, he has some good weapons to utilize in the passing game. Malcolm Floyd has a neck injury and will probably miss this game but former Bronco Eddie Royal has chipped in with five touchdowns thus far this season.
And Rivers favorite target TE Antonio Gates seems to be healthy for the first time in many years and has been productive. Gates has 15 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown but has 13 receptions in the past two games and is heating up.
The Cowboys linebackers will have to be aware of RB Danny Woodhead coming out of the backfield as well. Woodhead the diminutive sparkplug has 17 receptions on just 20 targets for 107 yards this season after coming over from New England as a free agent.
Chargers Running Game Vs Dallas Front Seven: The Chargers running game is currently ranked 18th in the NFL averaging 102.7 yards per game. They’ve only averaged 3.9 yards per carry however and leading rusher Ryan Mathews has not yet topped 75 yards on the ground, going 17 straight games without reaching 100.
Look for San Diego to take a page out of New England’s playbook and utilize Woodhead more on quick hitters to try and slow down the Dallas pass rush and take advantage of his quickness to get to the second level.
The Cowboys’ defensive front seven has played well against the run, allowing an NFC-low 66.3 yards per game. And they’ll want to force the game into Rivers’ hands and make them a one-dimensional team. The Bolts will have a tough time finding running room in this one.
Prediction: San Diego’s defense is going to make it awfully hard for them to stop the Cowboys and they are going to need to force multiple turnovers to take the pressure off Rivers and the offense.
But Tony Romo is going to love being able to run the ball (and they will) and open play action passing in mismatches using Bryant and Witten. Cowboys pull away in the 2nd half and win 31-20.
Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG
You can listen to me on Patriots Central Radio and we hope to soon have a Cowboys Central podcast as well. Stay tuned to Pro Football Central for news on everything that is the NFL.