A Texans-Cowboys regular season game happens every four years. Furthermore, a regular season home game happens every eight years, which makes Sunday night a special one for the franchise, the city of Houston and Texans fans everywhere. The last matchup in Houston was a resounding win for the Cowboys, 27-13, which gave the Texans their first loss of the 2010 season. They met again in Dallas in 2014 for one of the most amazing road games I've ever been a part of, yet the Cowboys won again, 20-17. In fact, after losing the inaugural matchup to the Texans, the Cowboys have won the last three in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Things obviously need to change. Sam Cooke once sang, "A change is goin' come," and there's no time like the present for the Texans to make the late, great crooner omniscient.
Both teams won last weekend to enter this game on a little bit of an upswing. The Texans needed five periods of play to beat the Colts 37-34, while the Cowboys won on a last-second Brett Maher field goal to beat Detroit 26-24 in AT&T Stadium. Why is the AT&T Stadium part of that sentence important? The Cowboys are undefeated (2-0) at home, but are 0-2 on the road, while the Texans are 0-1 at home. As such, one trend will be broken on Sunday night - either the Texans get their first win at home or the Cowboys get their first win on the road. And, no, I'm not thinking tie at all.
Let's get to know the 2018 Dallas Cowboys.
Schedule - Record (2-2)
L, 16-8 @ Carolina
W, 20-13 v. New York Giants
L, 24-13 @ Seattle
W, 26-24 v. Detroit
Rushing yards per game - 145.2 ypg (4th in the NFL)
Passing yards per game - 166.5 ypg (30th)
Total offense per game - 311.8 ypg (27th)
Turnovers lost - 4
Cowboys Starting Offense Last Sunday vs. Detroit:
QB - Dak Prescott
WR - ALLEN HURNS
LT - Tyron Smith
LG - CONNOR WILLIAMS (rookie)
C - Joe Looney
RG - Zack Martin
RT - La'el Collins
TE - Geoff Swaim
TE - Blake Jarwin
WR - DEONTE THOMPSON
RB - Ezekiel Elliott
Other Key Offensive Pieces:
WR - Cole Beasley (team's leading receiver with 16 catches)
WR - Terrance Williams
WR/RB - TAVON AUSTIN
FB - Rod Smith
FB - Jamize Olawale
TE - Rico Gathers
**All caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition
Keys to the Cowboys Offense:
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott turned in one of the best performances, for a running back, through four weeks of the NFL season. He ran for 152 yards on 25 carries and caught four passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. Twenty-nine touches for 240 yards and a touchdown. Clearly, he's one of the best in the league and is a three-down monster for the Cowboys.
How much does Elliott mean to the Cowboys offense? The Cowboys ran the ball 35 times on Sunday - 71.4 percent of the carries went Elliott's way. They ran 65 offensive plays in the game - 44.6 percent of the touches went to Elliott. The Cowboys generated 414 total yards and Elliott accounted for 58.0 percent of those yards. He's the second leading receiver on the team with 15 catches, one behind leader Cole Beasley.
Every single opponent knows that Elliott is going to handle the rock and Detroit knew it too. The problem is whether a defense can do anything about it. Each week, he's ramped up his production in the run game, in particular. He went from 69 yards to 78 to 127 to 152. He's the only back in the league averaging over a 100 per game. Then, on Wednesday, he said he's feeling as good as he has all year long. Yikes. There's no secret in this game - stop Elliott... or else.
Filling The Void
Since the departures of tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant, the Cowboys passing game has been slow to get in gear. Only one receiver has double digit catches on the season - Beasley has 16 to lead the team. For comparison sake, the Texans have three in double digits and only one receiver has played in all four games.
Yet, there's plenty of danger in that receiving corps, especially with the speed and quickness of a pair of receivers. Tavon Austin isn't going to fill the stat sheet with eight or nine catches in a day, but he's so fast and explosive that if he gets a step on the Texans secondary, it's going to be trouble. It was for the Giants when he roasted them right out of the chute for a 64-yard touchdown bomb to kick off the scoring that night.
Beasley is the other concern, for a much different reason. He's as adept at finding holes in the zone and getting open as any inside receiver the Texans will face this season. Whereas Austin can do his damage on one play, Beasley becomes a problem on third down each and every time there's an opportunity. The Texans were miserable on third down last week against the Colts and, making matters worse, they won't have inside corner Aaron Colvin to cover Beasley this Sunday night.
Sure, the Cowboys receiving corps isn't blessed with two All-Pro type players as they were for a decade or more. Yet, given the way the Texans covered last week, combined with the assets of these two targets, the Cowboys offensive brain trust has an opportunity to take some heat off of Elliott to move the football through the air.
Rushing yards allowed per game - 97.8 ypg (12th in the NFL)
Passing yards allowed per game - 208.5 ypg (6th)
Total offense allowed per game - 306.2 ypg (5th)
Turnovers generated - 2 (no interceptions)
Cowboys Starting Defense Last Sunday vs. Detroit:
DE - Demarcus Lawrence
DT - Tyrone Crawford
DT - Antwuan Woods (injured vs. Detroit - may not be ready for Sunday night)
DE - Taco Charlton
SLB - LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH (rookie)
MLB - Jaylon Smith
CB - Anthony Brown
CB - Chidobe Awuzie
CB - Byron Jones
S - Jeff Heath
S - Xavier Woods
Other Key Defensive Pieces:
ILB - Sean Lee (injured in Week 3, missed last week vs. Detroit)
DT/DE - David Irving (returning from suspension)
DT - Maliek Collins (injured past two weeks)
DE - Randy Gregor
**All caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition
Keys to the Cowboys Defense:
The nickname doesn't seem to match, if I'm being honest. With a nickname like Tank, Demarcus Lawrence should be playing fullback or middle linebacker. Instead, he dominates the game from the edge like few in the NFL. He leads the league in sacks with 5.5, one year after finishing second in the NFL with 14.5. He tacked on three to his total last week, destroying the Lions offensive line, with a sublime performance.
On his first sack, the Cowboys ran a T/E stunt and he swam the guard with ease. On his second sack, he flew upfield and worked back to Stafford who held the ball a count too long. On his third sack, he chopped the right tackle's hand down and then ripped right under him to get to Stafford a split second before he threw the ball. One thing about each of those sacks, he was single blocked - no chip, no help, no double teams. The Texans need a Tank-less backfield on Sunday night so they must give help to their tackles, in particular, to give Deshaun Watson time to throw.
Youth is Served
Take a look at the Cowboys secondary.
CB - Anthony Brown - drafted in 2016
CB - Chidobe Awuzie - drafted in 2017
CB - Jourdan Lewis - drafted in 2017
CB - Byron Jones - drafted in 2015
S - Xavier Woods - drafted in 2017
S - Kavon Frazier - drafted in 2016
Every key member of the secondary has less than three years of starts under his belt. In 2017, the Cowboys placed significant draft resources on that unit drafting Awuzie, Lewis and Woods in the first five rounds of that draft.
The result? The Cowboys defense has given up only one 300 yard passing game, which was last week to Detroit's Matt Stafford. They faced three other Pro Bowl quarterbacks, with the following results: 192 yards/two TD for Seattle's Russell Wilson, 279 yards/one TD for the Giants' Eli Manning and 161 yards/no TD for Carolina's Cam Newton. Three outstanding performances to say the least. If there's hope for the Texans, it's that Stafford not only threw for 307 yards on the secondary but he also completed 80 percent of his passes.
It might be a young secondary, but these guys can all run and challenge receivers in all areas on the field. Youth has certainly been served in Dallas.