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Lions Week 17 scouting report: Dallas Cowboys have concerning strengths, promising weaknesses

With the #1 seed up for grabs in the NFC, the Lions head to Dallas to take on the Cowboys under the lights.

Syndication: Palm Beach Post Jim Rassol / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tell me if this sentence was something you thought you’d hear in 2023. The NFC North champion Detroit Lions travel on the road Saturday night in primetime to take on the Dallas Cowboys in a game that will shake up the fight for the number one seed in the NFC playoff race. I bet you didn’t because I surely didn’t see that coming. I knew the Lions would be a playoff team, but fighting for a one-seed? That was not on my bingo card.

It’s true, though, that the Lions are tied for first place right now in the NFC with the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles at 11-4, while the Cowboys are a step behind at 10-5 but indeed still in the mix with just two games left in the season. This is the final primetime game of the season for the Lions, as they are the star of the show on Saturday night in what could be a potential playoff matchup in December.

Let’s familiarize you with the Cowboys in my Week 17 Scouting Report for the Detroit Lions.

2023 Dallas Cowboys

2023 season thus far (10-5)

Week 1: Win against New York Giants 40-0
Week 2: Win against New York Jets 30-10
Week 3: Loss against Arizona Cardinals 28-16
Week 4: Win against New England Patriots 38-3
Week 5: Loss against San Francisco 49ers 42-10
Week 6: Win against Los Angeles Chargers 20-17
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Win against Los Angeles Rams 43-20
Week 9: Loss against Philadelphia Eagles 28-23
Week 10: Win against New York Giants 49-17
Week 11: Win against Carolina Panthers 33-10
Week 12: Win against Washington Commanders 45-10
Week 13: Win against Seattle Seahawks 41-35
Week 14: Win against Philadelphia Eagles 33-13
Week 15: Loss against Buffalo Bills 31-10
Week 16: Loss against Miami Dolphins 22-20

Stats:

  • 2nd in points scored, 5th in points allowed
  • 6th in DVOA
  • 9th in offensive DVOA (10th in pass DVOA, 14th in run DVOA)
  • 6th in defensive DVOA (8th pass DVOA, 12th in run DVOA)
  • 6th in special teams

It’s another year where the Dallas Cowboys are back in the division title race and fighting for a top seed in the conference. The thing about Dallas is they usually falter in the playoffs, losing their first or second game of the postseason. This year started differently for the Cowboys, though, shutting out divisional rival Giants on the road 40-0, and from then on, this team has been labeled among the Super Bowl favorites.

Quarterback Dak Prescott was in the MVP discussion until just two weeks ago, and even if he isn’t in the MVP talk anymore, he is having possibly his best year yet. Known for turning the football over, Prescott has only seven interceptions this season, the second lowest in his career. He has thrown 30 touchdowns, tied with his second most, seven behind his career high in 2021, and he is tied for first in the NFL with that number, too. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb is having his best season yet, with 109 catches for 1,424 yards and nine touchdowns. He has now had three straight 1,000-yard seasons and back-to-back nine-touchdown seasons.

It’s not just the offense, though; the Cowboy’s defense is still one of the better defenses in the NFL. Linebacker Micah Parsons has 13 sacks this season, tied for seventh in the NFL, as he continues to haunt quarterbacks in their dreams. Defensive back DaRon Bland has stepped up massively for the secondary this season, getting eight interceptions and returning five for touchdowns. He is the only person in NFL history to have five or more defensive touchdowns in a season.

This team is complete, but they have struggled after starting 10-3. They are currently on their first losing streak of the year, dropping back-to-back road games. The Cowboys struggle on the road, as they are 3-5 on the road and 7-0 at home this season. Lucky for them, this game is at home, but anything can happen in the NFL.

The Cowboys are still fighting for their NFC East division title with the Eagles and are only a game behind for the number one seed in the NFC. If they win this game, both of those titles are still in play, but a loss would eliminate them from the one-seed talk, and they would need significant help to win the division.

Injury Notes

Key players ruled out: CB Trevon Diggs (IR/ACL), LB Leighton Vander Esch (IR/neck)

Key players to monitor: DT Johnathan Hankins (ankle), OT Tyron Smith (back)

The Cowboys are pretty healthy right now. They are only down two starters on the defensive side for the season, but both are strong players: cornerback Trevon Diggs—their interception leader back in 2021—and starting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. While those players are out for the year, defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins’s injury will be something to monitor as he has missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury and did not participate in Dallas’ walkthrough on Tuesday.

The offensive side of the ball is healthy, as only one starter will be one to watch in left tackle Tyron Smith. He missed last week with a back injury, but he was doubtful heading into the game instead of being ruled out early, so if he can have a good week of practice, he should be back this week. He, too, missed Tuesday’s practice.

Biggest strength: Passing Attack

It’s another week where the secondary will be tested heavily, as the Cowboys have plenty of receivers to get the ball, too. The more significant issue compared to last week? They have a better quarterback who can give them the football in Prescott and limit turnovers.

Another massive problem in the pass game is Lamb.

He has the potential to be a massive thorn in Detroit’s side. After a poor showing against the Minnesota Vikings last week, Lions cornerback Cameron Sutton (if matched up with Lamb) will have his hands full. The issue isn’t just with Lamb, though; he has help around him to make it so you can’t just double team him to solve the problem.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks has been an underrated piece to the offense, catching 43 passes for 558 yards and six touchdowns. Wide receiver Michael Gallup is also a threat, with 34 catches for 418 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Jake Ferguson has the second-most catches on the team with 61, along with 659 yards and five touchdowns.

Not only is Prescott better than Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens, but he also can run, and the Lions struggle to contain scrambling quarterbacks. The number two offense in the NFL will be a big challenge for the Lions to take on this week.

Biggest weakness: Run Defense

While struggling to win games on the road is the Cowboy’s biggest weakness, they are at home this week, so it’s onto the next big issue for them. That issue is stopping the run. The Cowboys average 115 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry (tied for 14th in the NFL). They have held opposing offenses to under 100 yards a game only six times this season.

Just two weeks ago, they allowed they had their worst rush defense performance of the season, allowing 266 yards against the Bills. The Lions love to run the football, and they do it well. Detroit is third in the NFL in rushing yards with 2,116, fifth in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.7, and tied for second in the league with 24 rushing touchdowns.

To make matters worse for Dallas, the Lions have two running backs close to eclipsing over 1,000 rushing yards on the season. David Montgomery has 910 yards, while rookie Jahmyr Gibbs has 872. They could both achieve that goal on Saturday night in a big game from both of them. If the Cowboys can’t stop the run, it could be a long night in Dallas.

Key matchup: Lions coverage vs. Cowboys passing attack

It’s back-to-back weeks with this matchup being the main one to watch. If the Lions can slow down the Cowboys’ passing game, they have a real chance of upsetting Dallas at home. Detroit has allowed the 10th-most passing yards on the season, while the Cowboys are fifth in the NFL in passing yards. Talk about a bad matchup.

The Lions caught a break against the Vikings when two of their top three receiving threats left with injuries, and still, the Vikings got over 400 yards passing on them. The Cowboys are at full strength and will be ready to rock against the Lions secondary that, while allowing big yardage last week, came away with four interceptions.

Oh, and don’t forget that safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson could have a chance to make his return against Dallas this week. He practiced in limited fashion last week, and head coach Dan Campbell said he wanted to see more practice in him, but he looked good. If Gardner-Johnson makes his return this week, that will be a big boost for the Lions secondary.

Vegas line for Sunday: Cowboys by 6.

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