The most recent game between the LA Rams and Dallas Cowboys wasn’t that long ago — Week 15 of 2019 — and neither team has changed their starting personnel much since then. So if you were familiar with the teams then, you should be mostly familiar with the teams now, with a couple of major exceptions.
The Cowboys are now coached by Mike McCarthy instead of Jason Garrett and he’s hired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, as well as former Rams special teams coach John Fassel, who wooed over kicker Greg Zuerlein from LA too.
McCarthy will work with much of the same personnel that Garrett had, but has lost some notable free agents such as Byron Jones, Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins, while Travis Frederick retired.
The Cowboys have a new defensive coordinator. New edge rushers. New defensive backs. Will a new defensive philosophy follow? We can only hope. @SportsSturm lays out what that could be, and how we'll be evaluating Mike Nolan's defense in 2020.https://t.co/Jtk5i8GxJB— The Athletic Dallas (@TheAthleticDFW) September 9, 2020
The Rams bring back the same head coach, but he’s hired two new coordinators (Kevin O’Connell for the offense, Brandon Staley for the defense) and have also seen some former key starters head for new stops: Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Cory Littleton, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Dante Fowler, plus the retirement of Eric Weddle. Clay Matthews has neither retired nor found a new team.
But the quarterbacks remain the same.
Dak Prescott enters his fifth season without a new contract and will be a free agent in 2021 unless there’s an extension or another franchise tag. He could have been a serious MVP candidate last season were it not for Dallas’s 8-8 record: 4,902 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 8.2 yards per attempt and three rushing touchdowns.
Jared Goff finished 15th in DYAR last season after ranking sixth in each of the previous two seasons. He and Sean McVay are hoping for him to rebound in 2020 with a similar supporting cast, a healthier offensive line and younger weapons at receiver and running back.
Those two players, most are aware of, but who else should be seeing the field on Sunday night?
These are not specifically “matchups,” which would be hard to project in any case but especially before Week 1. Instead, I wanted to place certain groups near each other and let your eyes and your mind do the rest, while I’ll just pepper in some notes about each group.
Rams offensive line - Andrew Whitworth, Joseph Noteboom, Austin Blythe, Austin Corbett, Rob Havenstein
Cowboys defensive line - Demarcus Lawrence, Everson Griffen, Dontari Poe, Trysten Hill, Tyrone Crawford
The Rams line feels about as optimistically good as it could have been at the start of the year if you said that the team wasn’t going to really make any changes with that group. There’s a reason to believe any of the five players could have a good year.
It’s tough to say at this point if Dallas’ defensive line should be considered better, worse or the same as last season. Griffen is a “name” but Maliek Collins seemed to play quite well last season and Robert Quinn was one of the most effective pass rushers in the league. But what if Lawrence is the player that made those two players possible? Then the defensive line will probably be fine.
So we really have Jim Tomsula with a DL of Everson Griffen, DLAW, RG94, Dontari Poe, Aldon Smith, Neville Gallimore, Tyrone Crawford, Bradley Anae, and Antwaun Woods. Cool.— Dan Turner (@dtsturner) September 4, 2020
Cowboys offensive line - Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin, Cam Erving
Rams defensive line - Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Sebastian Joseph-Day
It’s a different outlook for the Cowboys offensive line than most years. Smith and Martin return but Dallas has lost their all-pro center and replaced him with Looney, who had the job in 2018 too. Him and Williams may do okay, but don’t seem to have the upside of those two or La’El Collins, who will miss at least three weeks. He’s replaced by Erving, an obvious weak spot right now.
LA has the game’s best player on their defensive line. Staley may deploy Greg Gaines or Morgan Fox with A’shawn Robinson absent, we’re just not sure how the rotation will work yet.
Rams receivers - Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds, Van Jefferson
Cowboys secondary - Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Xavier Woods, Darian Thompson, Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie
Dallas had Jeff Heath at safety for the last three years but he’s now a backup in Las Vegas. They signed HaHa Clinton-Dix but cut him and apparently will go with Thompson, a former third round pick of the Giants who started for New York in 2017 but fell out of favor and wound up as a backup with the Cowboys. Until now.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said he expects WR Amari Cooper (hamstring), CB Chidobe Awuzie (knee) and S Xavier Woods (groin) to play at “full capacity” Sunday vs. Rams. All on schedule.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 10, 2020
Byron Jones left for Miami and the team will go with rookie second rounder Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown, a former sixth round pick. Brown and Thompson each started four games last season but will be full-time starters in 2020. Them plus a rookie and suddenly the veteran leader of the group becomes Woods, a 25-year-old safety who had 77 tackles and two interceptions last season and is perhaps the player in the secondary who will have the biggest impact.
Rams secondary - Jalen Ramsey, Troy Hill, Darious Williams, David Long, John Johnson, Taylor Rapp*
Cowboys receivers - Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson
If Rapp can’t go, the Rams might go with Terrell Burgess or Jordan Fuller. I tend to lean Fuller based on what little made it out of camp, but it could be that both players see the field — even if Rapp does start. It will be interesting to see if and how often Darious Williams is playing opposite Jalen Ramsey on the outside and what the rotation of corners looks like.
The Cowboys are now paying Amari Cooper like he’s a top-25 overall player in the NFL. He’s had four 1,000-yard seasons in five years and averaged 9.8 yards per target since joining Dallas 25 games ago. But Cooper’s yet to hit that really high mark as a high volume threat and maybe he never will be now that the team has found another 1,000-yard receiver in Gallup and spent a first round pick on Lamb.
Rams running backs, tight ends - Cam Akers, Malcolm Brown, Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett
Cowboys linebackers - Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Aldon Smith, Joe Thomas
I’m grouping all of these players together and I wouldn’t over-analyze why that happened. I’m assuming that Darrell Henderson won’t be ready but maybe that’s part of McVay’s plan. I think that even with Todd Gurley out, the Rams should be more optimistic about these groups today than they would’ve been with their backs and tight ends entering 2019. Akers is a healthy, young back with four cheap contract years. Henderson, similar. Higbee and Everett are coming off of their most promising seasons.
The Cowboys have a linebacker duo that has gotten plenty of positive attention, albeit with huge injury concerns tagged to both. Vander Esch is only 24 but already having to say things like “I feel as good as ever” or that he’s “not worried” about his neck issues anymore. Hopefully that’s the case and he’s able to have a healthy career but it’s not what you want to hear this early. Smith has never missed a game in three seasons but maybe hasn’t played as well without Vander Esch and it’ll be a long time before he puts his knee injury fully out of our minds.
Brad Sham is so impressed with Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch that @Boys_Vox tells "On Second Thought" podcast that he "looks like Brian Urlacher," the Bears 8-time Pro Bowler. Airs Thursday morning.— Kirk Bohls (@kbohls) September 9, 2020
Aldon Smith has mostly been surrounded by negative attention in his career and is coming back after a five-year absence. The talk on Smith in camp has been overwhelmingly good however and they’re expecting him to be a big contributor. Smith turns 31 this month.
Rams linebackers - Leonard Floyd, Micah Kiser, Samson Ebukam, Kenny Young
Cowboys running backs, tight ends - Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Blake Jarwin, Blake Bell
The Rams lost two linebackers in free agency, then a third to a season-long injury. That makes Ebukam the only player returning to the starting lineup from last season. Staley needs to see Floyd be everything and more as a $10 million free agent acquisition and for Kiser to be the next Littleton in order for this group to exceed it’s expected potential. It does seem like a weakness right now based on their losses, but that could be a red herring. We can’t say for sure which players will fail or succeed in this system, with this opportunity.
Dallas doesn’t seem to have the next Jason Witten brewing in their tight end group right now but eyes will be on Elliott this Sunday for all the usual reasons plus watching Aaron Donald’s run defense. The Rams hope that it’s other players besides Donald who play improved run defense compared to last season.
Rams special teams - Sam Sloman, Johnny Hekker
Cowboys special teams - Greg Zeurlein, Chris Jones
And these guys kick.