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Opponent scout: How the Chiefs handle the Cowboys at Arrowhead

Explaining the points to watch with Dallas coming into Kansas City.

Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

In this weekly opponent scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.

The Chiefs will host the Dallas Cowboys at Arrowhead Stadium for the final game before the bye week.


Overview

The Cowboys enter the game 7-2, their only losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and — surprisingly — the Denver Broncos in Week 9; Dallas trailed 30-0 in the fourth quarter in the unexpected blowout. They bounced back last week with a 43-3 thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons.

On offense, the Cowboys are the league’s most productive unit. It averages 31.6 points per game and 433.9 yards — first in the NFL for both. This season, it also leads in yards per play, net passing yards per attempt and has the highest team passer rating. The efficient passing is balanced with an emphasis on the ground game; the group is fourth in rushing attempts and yards per game. Dallas ranks fourth in Offensive DVOA, second in pass DVOA and 17th in rush DVOA.

The Cowboys’ defense has shown improvement from last season to now. It allows 21.7 points per game, the 10th-lowest rate in the league; it surrenders the 15th-lowest rate of total yards per game. Dallas defenders create turnovers at one of the highest rates in the league: they own the fourth-highest percentage of drives ending in turnovers. The Cowboys rank fourth in Defensive DVOA; third in pass DVOA and 18th in rush DVOA.

Offense

Quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the strongest candidates for MVP this year; he has the third-best odds for the award on DraftKings Sportsbook.

He has shown that he can consistently pick a defense apart pre-snap and post-snap, staying poised and finding the weakness in the coverage. He’s an accurate, fundamentally-sound passer, proven by his 70.3% completion percentage, the second-highest mark in the league. Prescott can make any throw on the field; he can make those throws on the move — but he’s at his best dissecting the coverage from the pocket.

Prescott takes advantage of the excellent pass protection he gets from his offensive line. He’s been sacked at the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL this season. The credit should go to the five-man unit up front, but running back Ezekiel Elliott is also critical to keeping Prescott clean. That said, Prescott can still win from the pocket when it’s cluttered.

From that pocket, Prescott is able to utilize one of the league’s best pass-catching groups. CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup — who is finally back healthy — can each make a big play at any moment. Lamb is slippery and explosive with the ball in his hands and Gallup is trusted to come down with any contested catch.

The Chiefs caught a defensive break when it was announced Friday that the Cowboys placed their other highly-talented wide receiver, Amari Cooper, on the COVID-19 list, meaning he is out for the game.

Dallas utilizes Cooper and Lamb as big-play options equally; they’re tied for the team lead with 15 targets 20 or more yards downfield, so this now projects as a Lamb-heavy game plan.

Dallas still wants to utilize the ground game — and they have the duo of running backs to take advantage of the excellent run blocking. Ezekiel Elliott is the big name, and he’s returned to form this year with the mix of power and elusiveness that made him the fourth-overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. Tony Pollard is lesser-known, but he’s making a name for himself with his explosiveness; Pollard averages 5.4 yards per rush attempt and 6.1 yards per touch.

The Dallas offensive line is one of the best in the league when it’s healthy. After missing the last two games, left tackle Tyron Smith is reportedly on track to return — which would give the Cowboys a completely healthy unit for the first time all season.

Defense

Like the Las Vegas Raiders, the Cowboys’ defense is run by a former coach in the Seattle Seahawks’ system from the early 2010’s — where Seattle perfected the Cover 3 defense. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has helped turn the Cowboys defense around in his first season in the job, and he did it by trusting his defense to play one-high, man-coverage looks at one of the highest rates in the league.

The secondary has made the most of that trust — they have the third-most interceptions in the NFL this season — but there’s a way to exploit it that has worked well this season. Crossing routes force a defender in man-coverage to chase a receiver from one side of the field to the other. At the same time, the deeper of the two crossers likely takes the attention of the deep safety — leaving the intermediate crosser going the opposite way with no safety help over the top.

Cornerback Trevon Diggs has eight interceptions this season, the most in the NFL. He’s returned two of them for touchdowns.

In the front seven, the Cowboys have to get creative with injuries to two of their best pass rushers: defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Rookie Micah Parsons has been a huge help in covering for them; he plays off-ball linebacker as his regular position on early downs — but he’ll be used as an edge rusher on third downs or passing situations.

Parsons won’t be the most technically-sound rusher in terms of hand usage or utilizing moves — but his athleticism allows him to fly around the corner off the snap. He’s the pass rusher that deserves the most attention.

The unit has excelled situationally this season; it allows the third-lowest conversion rate on third downs. They’ll get creative with blitzes and trust their man coverage on third downs — and it’s worked for them so far this year.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ defense will be facing a completely-healthy Cowboys offensive line and a good passing attack, even without Cooper. Kansas City’s pass-rush has come alive in recent weeks, but they’ll need their best performance to make an impact in this game.

On offense, the Chiefs need to take advantage of the snaps Dallas does play man coverage with one safety over the top. They may adjust their scheme to not be in those looks constantly — but that’s why Kansas City has to take the shots on that limited amount of snaps. On third downs, give whichever offensive tackle is facing Parsons some chip help; if he can’t fly off the snap and get around the corner cleanly, he doesn’t have the counter moves to win another way.