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Science Lab

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Science Lab: Fighter Jets, UFOs and the Cowboys


FRISCO, Texas — Once you show me you know how to fly, you'll never again convince me that walking is acceptable — as is the penalty of greatness. So after seeing what the Dallas Cowboys did to the New York Giants in Week 1, blasting through the not-actually-blue sky and entirely beyond the gravity of both the planet and the moment to reach outer space …

Don't return to Earth without proof of life on another planet.

At this point, that's what the Lombardi trophy has become for many outside of the organization — in Year 28 of the team's ongoing Super Bowl drought — seeing as it's beginning to feel alien to a lot of the fanbase; and particularly those who are roughly 30 years old or younger.

I mean, let's be real here, they've not seen it so, to them, it's akin to buying into the existence of extraterrestrials. But, hey, there's more evidence now than ever that actual aliens exist (gracias, Mexico), and that ironically times up with the Cowboys providing proof in 2023 that they're close to delivering a similar breakthrough.

What we saw at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 10 was a statistical UFO/UAP, and those are designed to fly exponentially higher and faster than jets, last I checked. The challenge in Week 2, however, is to not permit the jet to leave the tarmac in the first place.

The Achilles Heel

Take that subheader as an entendre, please.

Awesome, thanks.

I asked you to do so because it is both literal and figurative when it comes to the version of the New York Jets that will visit the Cowboys on Sunday, versus the version that was scheduled to, because Aaron Rodgers isn't running out of the tunnel at AT&T Stadium — thanks to a torn Achilles suffered only four snaps into his career as Robert Saleh's new franchise quarterback.

Rodgers is done for the season and with the remainder of his career in doubt, it's an unfortunate turn of events for all involved and, selfishly, for a Cowboys team who truly wanted to have an opportunity to exorcize a demon that has tortured them over the course of his NFL career, in much the same fashion as the one Dallas expelled at Raymond James Stadium in last season's first playoff game, when they beat up on Tom Brady like they had never done before.

What they can do, however, is make Zach Wilson see more ghosts than Peter Venkman, and that's because, as it stands, Wilson is … guess what? Wilson is that team's Achilles heel in what will be his first-ever clash with the Cowboys.

The Haunting

The year was 2019, and the quarterback for the Jets was Sam Darnold, a former third-overall pick from a year prior who, en route to a 33-0 conquering by the New England Patriots, was caught on mic saying he was "out there seeing ghosts"; and it was because Bill Belichick and a veteran defense had the then 22-year-old pressured and panicked to the tune of four interceptions to four different players.

And, correct me if I'm wrong, but the Cowboys led the NFL in takeaways the past two seasons and, one week into this season, already have three (two interceptions and a fumble recovery) under their belt.

They were able to pressure Daniel Jones, a much more veteran quarterback than Wilson, on 75% of his dropbacks last week and, per head coach Mike McCarthy, that is the highest number in that metric of any team he's ever been involved in.

He's been in the coaching ranks since 1995, by the way.

Wait, that's ... exactly 28 years ago.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?? Never mind. *smirks*

Granted, the ghosts were in the Darnold era, but there are glaring similarities between how he and Wilson react to pressure and duress, and it should invoke a lot of confidence in seeing the latter will be matched up against the best pass rush in the league.

The Castaway

Micah Parsons told everyone in the offseason that his plan in 2023 was to take everyone "out on an island" to see how they would fare, and he'll get a chance to drag Wilson into deep water like Tom Hanks' volleyball that bore the same name.

Wilson, whom the Jets had given up on as being the savior of their franchise on more than one occasion before finally making the blockbuster trade for Rodgers this offseason, now gets the nod from head coach Robert Saleh as the franchise quarterback yet again, and for the remainder of the season (maybe this time the Jets are serious about it, I guess).

The 24-year-old has played 22 games in his young NFL career, owns an 8-14 record as a starter and has tossed 19 interceptions to only 16 touchdowns. In that span, there are two numbers that fly off of the page regarding his weak points, and not simply the fact he's thrown three more interceptions than touchdowns; but that matters as well.

But, for me, the magic numbers are 39 and 25.

Lab Koat

In his two-year career, including Week 1 of this season, the BYU product has used the play-action pass a whopping 39% of the time.

For contrast, Rodgers is averaging less than 25%of play-action usage since being named starter for the Packers in 2008. This means, unlike with Rodgers wherein the Cowboys would need to account for the quarterback's outright ability to take over the game without the threat of the play-action, with Wilson, the mission becomes much, much simpler:

Halt the combination of Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook and force the game onto Wilson, something you couldn't do with Rodgers because forcing the game onto him is a threat he welcomes, ready to throw 40 times in any given game anyway.

If Wilson throws 40 times, you've likely won the game. To my point, he's had more than 35 passing attempts in seven games of his career and he's 1-6 in those contests.

It's fair to admit stopping what looks like an electric Hall alongside the proven ability of Cooks is easier said than done, sure, but it's doable for this revamped Cowboys defense that now includes an upgraded run defense by way of Johnathan Hankins and rookie first-round pick Mazi Smith; and one that is only a few days removed from having bottled up Saquon Barkley yet again to force him into an 0-9 record against the Cowboys.

Contain the Jets running game and it negates the ability to bluff at all with the play-action, and Wilson will then have to suffer through true dropbacks behind an offensive line that ended Rodgers' season and was mostly bullied by the Buffalo Bills (though their efforts were undercut by Josh Allen giving the ball away four times).

Then comes the pressure, and Wilson has not shown an ability to deal with it, and that brings me to the next magic number of 25.

Sheep in the Lion's Den

The young Jets' quarterback has a bad throw rate of 24.9% in his 22 starts, per Pro Football Reference (who tracks the metric to the exclusion of spikes and throwaways). That means one out of every four passes by Wilson is a bad throw when under pressure.

One … out … of … four.

That's something that has to have the takeaway-addicted Cowboys licking their chops.

For context, Rodgers' bad throw rate since 2018 (when the metric was created) is only 17.48% and those wondering what Dak Prescott's bad throw rate is will be interested to know it's less than Rodgers', and by a large margin.

Prescott only registers a bad throw 13.2% of the time.

Oops. Did I ruin your narrative about Prescott?

You'll live. Rub some dirt on it and walk it off.

Seeing as the Cowboys pressured Jones on three-fourths of his dropbacks, and Wilson, who has been pressured on 29% of his dropbacks with the Jets, and adding in the film from Monday night, Parsons and Co. will have plenty of opportunity to feed if the run is neutralized but, to Wilson's credit, he has a level of escapability that must be accounted for and arguably more so than that of Jones.

This is especially when considering Wilson can use his legs to buy time to find dynamic wideout Garrett Wilson downfield. If you want to neutralize the ability of one Wilson, the defense must delete the ability of the other.

Jones averages 7.9 yards per scramble, but Wilson averages nine yards (!) per scramble, and he's not afraid to take off and run, having done it 30 times since entering the league in 2021, because it's largely his only means of not being buried.

Whether it's a designed QB run or an impromptu scramble, it's imperative the Cowboys seal the edges — which also goes to the ability of Leighton Vander Esch, Damone Clark and Markquese Bell to do so — to eliminate drive-extending third-down plays and the like by flying sideline to sideline.

… like a UFO.

Fighter Jets

From there, it's all about what might be the biggest struggle for the Cowboys and that's facing a Jets defense that is the heart-and-soul of the entire team. One need to look no further than the overtime victory against the Bills that was fueled by four takeaways against Allen and a walk-off touchdown on special teams to see what I mean.

Remember that very low 13.2% bad throw rate owned by Prescott that I mentioned a few minutes ago? That will play large here, because the name of the game will be to eliminate opportunities for Saleh's bunch to take the ball away.

What the Cowboys' offense is about to face is one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL, namely Quincy Williams and C.J. Mosley, the tandem delivering a combined 17 tackles against Allen and the Bills. The name of the game has to be to drag both of these players out of the center of the second level by, unlike my plan for Jones in Week 1, using the run to set up the pass — mixing in a ton of non-traditional runs like counters, runs toward the edges that force them to play sideline-to-sideline, misdirections, and using pre-snap motion to keep them guessing.

Do not allow them to play strictly off of muscle memory, for the love of all that is holy.

Make them think and that added second will be enough time for playmakers, of which the Cowboys are not lacking, to take advantage of what might be a soft spot in the defense if Mosley and Williams can be removed from that part of the field. I love that KaVontae Turpin was utilized against the Giants, but I'd give Deuce Vaughn some solid burn here.

That's when the second part of the plan comes into play: slants and short inside flats.

If those are executed well, it should result in catches that then force the safeties to play forward, and that means Jordan Whitehead, the recipient of three interceptions from Allen in Week 1, will have to focus less on what might happen behind him and more on trying to compensate for linebackers that are being stretched horizontally.

This is where the route-running ability of Brandin Cooks and CeeDee Lamb can be devastating, and I do believe Jake Ferguson will have a better day at catching as is usually the case (though he was fantastic in blocking last week and that'll be needed as well against the aforementioned linebackers a time or two); and don't forget the ability to use KaVontae Turpin and/or Deuce Vaughn out of the slot … along with Michael Gallup.

The third and final part of the plan?

The go route.

With Whitehead and the safeties leaning forward, it will be time to take the top off of the defense with deep routes to any of the Cowboys wideouts I've mentioned, and maybe one that I haven't yet: Jalen Tolbert (who the Jets will likely not account for, which would be their mistake).

You have to love the ability in the cornerbacks room in New York, as Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed presents a markedly upgraded level of competition over the two rookies marched out by the Giants, and that makes for a great challenge for Lamb, Cooks and the others, but it's one that can be won, more often than not, by the savvy and primed veteran receivers in Dallas.

Area 51

Much like the 75% pressure rate created by the defense last week, in all, the Cowboys were plus-21 in big plays against the other team from New York, the most McCarthy has ever experienced in his coaching career, and there are big plays to be had for Prescott and the offense, but it will begin with blocking well upfront — draw a circle around Quinnen Williams here — to allow for the attack at the second level to set up the attack downfield, which then re-opens up the run and attack at the second level.

Rinse and repeat.

That's the blueprint as I see it, but anyone pretending this is a trap game also isn't paying attention to the culture inside the Cowboys' locker room — what I now label as The Kennel, for a very specific reason.

Fact is, McCarthy and his players watched the same contest on Monday night that the rest of us did and, as such, they saw what happened when a contender plays down to their competition and makes unnecessary mistakes that keeps them in the game. So, when the fighter Jets try to take off in Arlington, make sure they lack the fuel to leave the tarmac.

Because jumping out to a 2-0 lead to the season will be yet another step toward possibly apprehending The Alien in February, when things kick off at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, because it's always better to be Sigourney Weaver in human vs. Alien scenario.

That is opposed to being Dallas (yes, that was his name in the movie) in the air ducts of the spaceship thinking it was all just light work. He learned the hard way that it is anything but, as the Cowboys have learned entering Year 28 of trying to capture the ever-elusive Thing, it is anything but.

The coming opponent in Week 2 is neither a trap nor a bye week, but instead a chance to prove "every game is the Super Bowl", as Parsons said to start the season.

Approaching it as anything less will result in an explosive crash landing back to Earth.

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