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Lions vs. Cowboys 5Qs preview: Dallas offense needs to throw ‘changeups’ to get back on track

A preview with David Halprin about the Week 17 matchup between the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Even though the Detroit Lions clinched their division for the first time in 30 years, the celebration will be as short-lived as your break from work this holiday season. Division champs one moment, on to Dallas for the matchup with the Cowboys the next—with still plenty at stake for both teams.

As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective. Ahead of this Week 17 matchup between Detroit and Dallas, we called on David Halprin from to give us some insight into how this Cowboys team has held serve at home like no other team in the NFL, what’s been up on both sides of the ball during their current two-game losing streak, and how he expects Dallas to bounce back in a game they need to win in order to have a shot at the NFC East crown.

The Cowboys find themselves as losers of two in a row, a spot they haven’t been in all season long.

What’s your level of confidence in Mike McCarthy and this coaching staff stopping this skid–and how much of that has to do with playing in the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium?

I feel pretty good about the Cowboys chances this week, and yes, a lot of that has to do with Dallas playing at home. We’ll discuss the home field advantage a little later in another answer, but suffice it to say that it is a big thing for Dallas. But there are other elements, too.

The big one is the way the team played against the Miami Dolphins last week. The week before that, Dallas put in an abysmal performance against the Buffalo Bills. That performance put some doubt in our minds about the true quality of this team. For three-quarters of the season Dallas had been beating up on plenty of bad teams, and had some good games and bad games versus good teams. But they sputtered badly against the Bills. Even though they lost against the Dolphins last week, they played much better and only lost on a last-second field goal. They were able to hold the most prolific scoring offense in the NFL to just one touchdown. If not for a few issues on offense, including a brutal fumble at the goal line, they would have won the game. So that at least leaves some confidence that the Bills game was just a one-off and overall the team is still in good shape.

Also, Mike McCarthy has done a decent job of keeping this team from going into slumps. The back-to-back losses over the past two weeks hadn’t happened since back in the 2021 season. McCarthy has been able to get the team going after some bad performances. He’s also had the Cowboys playing well in December during his time here, so adding all that up gives some confidence the team will bounce back.

Dak Prescott was the favorite to be the league’s MVP heading into Week 15’s matchup against the Bills, but one of his worst performances of the season in Buffalo slowed that talk to a halt.

Prescott picked himself up with his play against the Dolphins, but what does the Cowboys offense need to do in order to get back on track and play like the top-ranked offense (9th in team offense DVOA, 2nd in points per game) they have been all year?

It’s really just the basic stuff you would expect. The Cowboys offensive line struggled with the pass rush versus the Bills and Dolphins, forcing Prescott into some bad throws and sacks. The line had been doing a good job of protecting Prescott throughout the year, so there is an expectation that they will be better after slumping for a bit. Defenses the last few weeks have also been trying to disrupt Prescott’s first read and make him hold the ball a little longer. This has contributed to the issues on the line as they have needed to hold their blocks a little longer. Teams may be catching up to some of the Cowboys tendencies on offense and this will require the offense to change it up a little going forward. The Cowboys run game has also been mediocre to poor much of the year, so that’s always an issue. But if their running game can just give them a decent showing, the offense takes off and scores points. I don’t think there is one silver bullet here to do the trick, they just need to execute better and maybe throw a few changeups at defenses to keep them from zeroing in on their tendencies.

Dallas has also been one of the best defenses in the league this season–ranked 6th in team defense DVOA and 5th in points per game against (19.1). However, the Cowboys have surrendered 25.3 points per game over their last four games, and their aforementioned game against the Bills saw them give up a season-high 266 rushing yards (5.4 yards per carry over 49 carries).

What’s been concerning about the Cowboys' defense over this stretch, and what reasons are there to be optimistic about them tightening things up on this side of the ball?

What’s concerning is that it’s not just one thing that is breaking down on the defense, although run defense has been an issue with the Dallas defense for a while. But some of that comes from the design of Dan Quinn’s defense that prioritizes pass defense over run defense. In the Seattle game a few weeks ago, the Cowboys secondary had all kinds of issues, including cornerback DaRon Bland having an absolutely awful game. D.K. Metcalf ate his lunch. The Cowboys had to move Stephon Gilmore over to cover Metcalf at the end and that worked as Dallas was able to win a shootout. In Buffalo, it was just a disaster in the running game. James Cook went wild and Josh Allen barely had to throw the ball. Some of this comes from Quinn’s defensive design where the defensive line stunts a lot, lines up in unusual formations and goes after the pass rush. That leaves gap discipline for the run game in disarray sometimes. Dallas also likes to use safeties as linebackers in some formations, so that gives them a very light box for defending the run. Additionally, the Cowboys uncharacteristically just missed a bunch of tackles.

Fortunately, things were much better against the Dolphins. Miami only scored 22 points, and only six of those came from a touchdown, The rest were field goals (and an extra point), and some were very long field goals. They kept the Miami running game in check, and that’s hard to do versus Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane. That bodes well for the Cowboys attempting to contain David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs this week.

Who are some of the unsung heroes on this Cowboys roster, on both sides of the ball, that have made a big difference this season?

Offensively it’s been pretty much the known guys who have shined. Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, a little bit of Brandin Cooks, and a veteran offensive line. Tight end Jake Ferguson is a guy some might not know much about, but he has become the Cowboys second option on offense. His ability to find the open areas in zones, or win down the seams has been so important to Prescott. Feguson is also a very solid blocker and looks to be a star at the position for the future.

On defense, the linebacker duo of Markquese Bell and Damone Clark have managed to hold things together at a position where the Cowboys are very thin. Dallas lost Leighton Vander Esch early in the season and really had nowhere else to turn except to Clark and Bell. They have had their growing pains, but are showing a lot of promise. Bell is a converted safety and really shows well when defending tight ends or running backs in the passing game. Clark is more of a traditional off-ball linebacker who is a sure tackler. They were not good against the Bills, but for the most part have been solid all year.

What’s one nugget of Cowboys’ intel that a gambling Lions fan would find useful for their bet slip this weekend?

[Note: You can catch the latest odds here at DraftKings Sportsbook]

It has to be the Cowboys playing at home. When I saw the line was about six points in favor of the Cowboys, I thought that’s a little much for a team coming off two losses versus a team that has won their division and has a better record. But when you look at the split of how the Cowboys play on the road versus how they play at home, you start to see why. The Cowboys are undefeated at home, and average just under 40 points per game. They have yet to score under 30 points at home this season. The defense, on average, gives up just over 15 points at home. The difference in how this team plays at home versus on the road is striking. It’s probably the one thing that gives Cowboys fans confidence that they will win this week.

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