The second of two games on Monday night in Week 6 will not be quite the marquee matchup we envisioned before the season began, but it's still a fascinating one. The Dallas Cowboys are hosting the Arizona Cardinals in a battle of two teams who, despite having middling records, still have hopes of heading to the playoffs.
The Cowboys will be playing their first game in nearly five years without Dak Prescott under center, as Andy Dalton will take the reins the rest of the way. The Cardinals will be looking to build on last week's demolition of the abomination that is the New York Jets, and to keep pace in the best division in football.
Let's break down the matchup, but first, let's recap how you can follow along and watch it unfold.
How to watch
When the Cardinals have the ball
It's tough to know what to make of the Arizona offense so far. The Cardinals looked great to start the season, came back down to earth against the Lions and Panthers, then beat up on the Jets. They've scored at least 21 points in all five of their games and topped 400 total yards in three of them. They rank a respectable 11th in the NFL in yards per play, but only 20th in the percentage of their drives that have ended in a score. They've had the third-worst average starting field position in the NFL, though, and they've turned it over on 14 percent of their drives -- one of the highest rates in the league.
DeAndre Hopkins has been pretty spectacular (45-528-2), but Kyler Murray has struggled when throwing the ball to pretty much anyone else. On passes to non-Hopkins receivers, he is just 81 of 128 (63.2 percent) for 771 yards (6.0 per attempt). Larry Fitzgerald is averaging less than 7 yards per catch. Christian Kirk has a catch rate barely above 50 percent. Kenyan Drake has six targets all year.
Drake has also been running in mud all season, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and failing to capitalize on two different cupcake matchups (Lions and Panthers). Chase Edmonds has had limited opportunities but has looked like the more explosive player throughout the season. His usage went way up last week, so against the Cowboys, we'll see if that's a trend or an abberation
Despite wasting so many plays on Drake hand-offs, the Cardinals have remained one of the league's more efficient rushing teams, largely because Murray is just out of his mind on scrambles so far this year. According to Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, Murray has run for a positive gain on 28 percent of the plays where he has been pressured this season. That's the second-highest rate in the league. He's also gained an average of 11.9 yards per scramble, the league's third-best figure.
In the Cowboys, the Cardinals get another excellent matchup on Monday night. Dallas is one of five teams that rank 20th or worse in Football Outsiders' DVOA against both the run and the pass, along with the Bills, Packers, Raiders, and Jaguars. With the exception of the sad-sack Giants, every Cowboys opponent has moved the ball essentially at will. The pass rush is the best part of the Dallas defense, and prior to last week against the Giants (when Demarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith each had nine pressures), it had been average at best.
The Dallas secondary has been one of the most burnable units in the entire league, with opponents throwing for 12 touchdowns and just one interception. With the exception of Xavier Woods (79.2), each of Dallas' regular starters on the back end of the defense has allowed a passer rating of 101 or better on throws in their direction, according to Pro Football Focus. The only other defender who has bested that mark is Chidobe Awuzie, but he's been out since Week 3 with an injury. Trevon Diggs, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, Daryl Worley, Darian Thompson, Donovan Wilson, Jaylon Smith, Joe Thomas... they're all eminently beatable in coverage.
The Cowboys don't really have anyone who can match up with Hopkins, and if the Cardinals can protect Murray long enough for him to locate Nuk down the field, he should have a field day. The question will be whether Arizona's tackles can hold up against Lawrence and Smith, who should be producing more in line with the way they did against the Giants than the way they did the first four weeks of the season. If the Cowboys can get anything out of Everson Griffen on the edge, that'd be a bonus. They seem pretty unlikely to generate pressure up the middle, though: Dontari Poe has been awful, Tyrone Crawford has been only marginally better, and Trysten Hill is now out for the year. A lack of pressure up the middle could provide avenues for Murray to scramble away from heat off the edges, which could cause a lot of problems for the Dallas defense.
When the Cowboys have the ball
The big question for the Dallas offense is how much -- if anything -- will change with Andy Dalton under center.
Dak Prescott was on pace to rewrite something like half the passing record books before he went down. Some of that incredible volume was driven by the Cowboys' consistently falling behind early in games this season, but some of it was also driven by the Cowboys' tendencies: Dallas plays at the fastest situational-neutral pace in the league, and the Cowboys are among the teams with the highest situation-neutral pass rate as well. Prescott was balling and the best unit on the team is the wide receiver corps, so that strategy made some sense -- and it's also in line with what Mike McCarthy likes to do anyway.
Plenty of supposedly neutral observers have been forecasting a drop in pace and a spike in rushing volume for the Cowboys, but too much of a swing in that direction would be going against a lot of history. It's likely that the Cowboys will continue to play pretty fast, and that they'll continue to be among the pass-heavier teams in the NFL. They just may not be the single fastest team, and may not be one of the three or four pass-heaviest teams anymore.
It's not like these are the 2014 or even 2016 Cowboys, by the way, that can lean on their offensive line to just clear the road for Ezekiel Elliott and maul everyone in front of them. Elliott is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry, tied for the worst mark of his career, and that's perhaps not surprising considering Dallas is playing without Travis Frederick (retirement), Tyron Smith (neck surgery), and La'el Collins (hip surgery). Only Zack Martin is left from the team's elite units up front, and he's joined by a couple of undrafted free agents in Brandon Knight and Tyler Steele, plus rookie fourth-rounder Tyler Biadasz, and the extremely disappointing 2018 second-rounder, Connor Williams. It is not an imposing group, and it is not one that the Cowboys can count on to simply dominate the line of scrimmage and allow Elliott to control the clock all game.
Elliott, for his part, has not done as good a job avoiding negative plays as he has in the past (16.9 percent of his carries have gained zero or negative yards) and has not broken many explosive runs, either. Some might want to attribute that to a lack of rhythm or touches, but he's averaging 17.8 carries per game (only one fewer than a year ago) and playing a career-high 88 percent of the snaps, so that seems rather unlikely.
Against an Arizona defense that has been far stouter against the run (13th in DVOA) than the pass (26th), the Cowboys would likely be wise not to stray too far from the strategy they have employed for much of the season. Dalton will presumably not be able to make quite as much happen as Prescott -- especially because he cannot be counted on to avoid hits in the pocket with the same regularity as his predecessor -- but he does figure to have advantages on the outside with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, and even Cedrick Wilson working against this Cardinals secondary.
Arizona's cornerback trio of Patrick Peterson (82.2 passer rating allowed, per Pro Football Focus), Byron Murphy (94.8), and Dre Kirkpatrick (98.8) has been pretty beatable this season, and their linebackers and safeties have been even more vulnerable. That could point toward increased passing game involvement for Elliott and/or Tony Pollard, as well as tight end Dalton Schultz. That's especially likely to be the case if the offensive line can't hold up for that long against Arizona's pass rush. That pass rush, though, has not been anything to fear so far this season, and it'll be working without Chandler Jones on Monday night as well.
In other words, even without Prescott, Dallas should have plenty of opportunities to score in this game. The question is whether the Cowboys will be able to keep pace with whatever Murray and company are able to do against the decrepit Dallas defense.
Prediction: Cardinals 30, Cowboys 24