Scout's Eye: Winning On First Down; Fixing The Cowboys' Red Zone Defense

FRISCO, Texas – Here are my two biggest keys to Monday night's game between the Cardinals and Cowboys.

The Dallas Cowboys Win If:

The Arizona Cardinals, defensively, are constructed in a way that could give the Cowboys trouble. 

They have size inside at tackle with pressure players off the edge. They have speed at linebacker and an elite cover cornerback. They get hats to the ball and as a unit they finish as tacklers. Through two games they're one of the best in the league in creating negative plays in the running game. Opponents have managed to rush the ball for 4-plus yards per carry on just 35 percent of their snaps. 

The Cowboys' offensive identity is their ability to successfully run the ball, especially on early downs. Despite those issues against the Broncos, the Cowboys still rush the ball for 4-plus yards on first down 54 percent of the time -- so that's a positive sign. When the Cowboys are humming on offense, they're winning on those early downs running the ball and that sets up the other downs. 

When they don't stay ahead of the chains is where they get crushed. Opponents have put Dak Prescott in some tough situations to have to convert, especially on third downs. When opponents have blitzed him, he has a rating of 61.9, while the league average is 91.6. 

For the Cowboys to win this game, it's going to come down to the ability to figure out this Cardinals' defense especially on first down. Win there and it sets you up for other opportunities on second and third downs, where the Cardinals struggle playing pass defense. 

The Arizona Cardinals Win If:

The Cardinals are a big play offense. When it comes to plays of 20-plus yards, they're one of the best in the league. Where they've have been poor is when it comes to scoring inside the opponent's 30-yard line. As a unit they rank 28th when it comes to those trips. They have no problem getting there, it's finishing where they've had their struggles. Not all of the blame can be placed at the feet of Carson Palmer, but he hasn't been his best with an overall rating of just 53.3. 

Opponents haven been able to choke off the Cardinals by allowing an average of just 2.95 yards per play. Having no David Johnson in the lineup as that weapon to run or catch the ball has hurt them here. Johnson is such a dynamic player, and the way that Bruce Arians uses him is vital to their success. 

In this matchup, this is where the rubber meets the road. As bad as the Cardinals have been offensively inside the 30, the Cowboys have also been alarmingly bad. They allow 3.8 yards per play when opponents travel inside their 30, and opposing quarterbacks overall have a 128.5 rating passing. To make matters worse, in those trips they've allowed points 83 percent of the time. 

For the Cardinals to win this game, they're going to need to figure out their own problems inside the 30 and make this Dallas defense pay for that inconsistent play.

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