IRVING, Texas – If you watched these two teams play in 2013, you'll understand me when I say this game will hinge on the passing game.
No one needs another reminder about what Calvin Johnson did to this defense last season. Dez Bryant didn't have a bad day himself, as he finished with three catches for 72 yards and two scores. Considering the Lions' No. 1 run defense, you can't undersell Bryant's impact against a No. 13 Detroit passing defense.
With that in mind, I think both of the crucial matchups in this game come down to pass defense.
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant against Lions secondary
The real matchup is which secondary will be able to handle the other team's dynamic receiver?
When these two clubs met last season in Detroit, it was Johnson that got the best of the Cowboys defense -- and notice that I said the defense as a group and not just Brandon Carr. There were plays in that game that should have been made against the talented Johnson, but it just didn't happen. What both Bryant and Johnson should expect is neither of these defensive coordinators allowing them much free access in these routes.
The safety play will be critical in how this game unfolds positioning-wise. What I do know from talking to Bryant is that his sole mission when dealing with coverage over the top is that if he can beat that first man, then he knows working on that safety is the least of his problems. There is no doubt in my mind that Bryant will see both Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo shaded his way on plenty of snaps.
It was good for Bryant to go through that experience in 2013 of being on the opposite side of the field from Johnson because of how much hype there was before the meeting, and he will be able to better prepare himself to do his job. I feel like that Bryant is better equipped both mentally and physically to handle what he is about to see from the Lions, and that can help him in his focus to have the type of game against the Lions that Johnson had against his team.
Cowboys CB Orlando Scandrick against Lions WR Golden Tate
I went back in my film library to check out Scandrick's history with Tate from when the Cowboys and Seahawks played in 2012, and in fact they did play each other -- but for limited snaps. Scandrick was the nickel corner that day, while Morris Claiborne got the start at left corner, so there wasn't much to go on from there.
With so much focus on Calvin Johnson and the problems he presents, I actually believe it is Tate that can be just as dangerous due to his ability to execute routes at so many different levels. With Johnson, you are going to get a vertical route or something breaking inside to use his body. There is not as much movement with Johnson in the formation, so it is much easier to have a plan against him coverage-wise.
With Tate you have to play him more man-to-man due to his movement. This is where Scandrick is at his best -- when he can track a receiver around the field because of his skill set. Scandrick is comfortable with receivers that have speed and quickness, which is why the last several ball games we have seen him match the opponent's faster player and been able to handle that assignment well.
Tate leads the Lions in receptions with 99 on the year. There was a stretch during the season where he had five of six games where he was targeted 10 times or more, and in that sixth game he had nine. Finding a way to slow down Calvin Johnson is key but how Orlando Scandrick plays against Tate will be crucial to a Cowboys victory.