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Rams-Cowboys preview: Which matchups look good on paper?

The only place matchups could even be right now

NFL: AUG 26 Rams Training Camp Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite whatever we read in the next week about power rankings or predictions or “favorites,” the reality is that we don’t know how the next 17 weeks are going to go. Countless players — I’d argue the vast majority — are going to be better or worse than you or I expect.

To suspect yourself of being accurate about the level of value or production of most NFL players for the 2020 season would require double the amount of confidence it would take to make an NFL team.

Me and you (probably) didn’t make an NFL team, but these players did. And so did the head coaches for those teams — they literally “make the teams.” How they’ll actually play this season is only a fantasy that’s playing in my head. It’s not reality.

But based on that fantasy — supported by past reality — comes a few potentially beneficial matchups for the LA Rams when they host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football this week.

Rams WR vs Cowboys CB

One area most will probably highlighting is LA’s receivers against the mostly untested and/or unproven cornerbacks for Dallas. It’s not that we can guarantee that the Cowboys corners will be bad, it only means that we have little to go off of other than glowing training camp reports and the Week 1 depth chart:

Rookie Trevon Diggs and veteran Anthony Brown are the starters.

Diggs was the 51st overall pick out of Alabama this year, one spot ahead of the Rams selection of Cam Akers. His first assignment may be to cover Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp and in either case he’s lining up against a player who is capable of a 1,200-yard season.

Brown was a quiet re-sign for Dallas after he started four games and accumulated 282 defensive snaps in nine games last year. He began camp looking to win a job and ended it as the starting outside cornerback when he had only been playing slot in 2019. He could also face Woods, Kupp or Van Jefferson in Week 1.

Chidobe Awuzie started 16 games for the Cowboys last year but has been injured and missed important time in camp. Jourdan Lewis, who started five games and appeared in all 16, has been called a gametime decision. So has safety Xavier Woods. They also recently added Brandon Carr to the practice squad.

By any measure, this would appear to be a Rams advantage on paper.

Aaron Donald vs Joe Looney

Suddenly people want to talk about Aaron Donald and it seems the three-time Defensive Player of the Year could be worth monitoring on Sunday. I’m sure nothing has changed about Brandon Staley’s gameplan or Donald’s effort against the Cowboys based on Run Stop Win Rate, the end goal would still be for Ezekiel Elliott to have his worst game at any level, but LA’s defense as a whole will be tested against one of the NFL’s most decorated offenses.

In the Thai movie Bad Genius (available on Netflix), the premise is set around cheating on tests to get into good universities, but none of the plan works if it not for the protagonist Lynn being a genius at the highest order. The cheating doesn’t work if she doesn’t simply know all the answers and we don’t question why she does ... but she does. She knows everything.

Well, when the Rams defense gets tested, their “Lynn” is Donald and we don’t have to question how he has all the answers. He just does. He’s that good.

In a matchup of two Hall of Fame talents last season, Donald faced off against Travis Frederick and had zero sacks with one tackle for a loss. This year, Frederick has retired and been replaced by Looney, their starting center in 2018 when Frederick was first diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome.

With much of the same or similar personnel, the Cowboys ranked fifth in scoring in 2016, 14th in 2017, 22nd in 2018 and sixth in 2019. I happen to think the center position is very underrated and that is especially true if the player on the other side is Aaron Donald.

If Donald is tasked with more assignments against Zack Martin or Connor Williams, those each warrant different conversations. Obviously, Martin is a talent at the level of Frederick. And Donald is also of a certain talent level.

McVay vs McCarthy

I know how people can get with defending coaches, but I’m surprised McCarthy lasted as long as he did in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers in his prime. The Packers offense ranked 15th, fourth, 21st and 14th in scoring over McCarthy’s final four seasons. Defensively, they were rarely good, ranking 21st, 26th and 22nd in points allowed over his final three seasons, and the last time a McCarthy defense finished in the top-10 was 2010.

You’re allowed to call points a rudimentary measurement, but you’ll have a hard time finding advanced metrics that favor the outcome of McCarthy’s teams for most of the last decade. Under Matt LaFleur in 2019, Green Bay went from 29th in DVOA for defense to 15th while remaining in the top-10 offensively.

Perhaps a fresh start will work out for McCarthy in the way that it did for Andy Reid or Gary Kubiak. I’m not commenting on the future results or saying that he isn’t an upgrade over Jason Garrett. But past results, and especially what we’ve seen in the last three years, would heavily favor the outcomes for Sean McVay’s Rams.

Notable assistants for McCarthy include offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, now entering his second year on the job and his third as a coach at any level; Mike Nolan, who spent the last three years coaching linebackers for the Saints, is back at the defensive coordinator position for the first time since 2014; John Fassel, once and potentially still the most respected special teams coach in the NFL, as you know; plus offensive line coach Joe Philbin, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and senior defensive assistant George Edwards.

How to “measure” coaching is as imprecise as anything but I could understand optimism and confidence in McVay over McCarthy at this stage in their careers and headed into Week 1.