Here’s The Star’s weekly game preview detailing the key players and matchups for the Kansas City Chiefs’ game against the Dallas Cowboys, 4-3, at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5).
You can also listen to this week’s Chiefs Gameplan podcast, featuring interviews with kicker Harrison Butker, Cowboys beat writer Clarence Hill, Jr., of the Fort Worth Star Telegram and an A-Team roundtable with The Star’s Vahe Gregorian (@vgregorian), Blair Kerkhoff (@BlairKerkhoff), Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) and David Eulitt (@davidphotokc).
You can also watch this week’s Chiefs Gameplan video right here.
Head coach: Jason Garrett (61-47) is in his seventh year on the job. Garrett, 51, is a former NFL quarterback who won two Super Bowls as a backup for the Cowboys in the early 90s. After his playing career came to a close, he spent two years as the Dolphins’ quarterbacks coach (2005-2006) before he was hired to be the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator (2007). He was promoted to assistant head coach a year later and was named interim head coach in 2010 before he was hired for his current position in 2011.
Offense: Scott Linehan, 54, is in his third year as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. A former college quarterback at Idaho, he’s spent 20-plus years as an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in the college and pros. He spent three years as the Rams’ head coach (2006-2008) before spending five years as the Lions’ offensive coordinator. He was hired to be the Cowboys’ passing game coordinator in 2014 and was elevated to his current position in 2015. Dallas ranks 17th in passing offense (219.3 yards per game) and second in rushing offense (150.6). Dallas is balanced; the Cowboys are passing the ball 52 percent of the time. They also use lots of three-wide formations and run play-action 19 percent of the time, which is 18th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders.
Defense: Rod Marinelli, 68, is in his fourth year as Dallas’ defensive coordinator. A former college offensive lineman at Utah and Cal Lutheran, Marinelli made his way up the NFL coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball. After spending several years as a defensive line coach at various colleges, he was hired to be Tony Dungy’s defensive line coach with Tampa Bay in 1996, a position he thrived in for 10 seasons. After a difficult three-year stretch as the Lions’ head coach (10-38), he spent four years with the Bears as a defensive line coach/defensive coordinator before joining Dallas as a defensive line coach in 2013. He was promoted to defensive coordinator the next year. Dallas runs a 4-3 defense that ranks 15th in the league in pass defense (218.9) and fifth in sacks (25). The Cowboys’ run defense ranks 15th in the league (106.0). They are also yielding 8.3 yards per play on play-action, according to FO, which ranks 21st in the league.
Special teams: Rich Bisaccia, 57, is in his fourth year as Dallas’ special teams coach. He has also been the Cowboys’ assistant head coach since 2015. Bisaccia has been coaching for 34 years, 15 in the NFL. Kicker Dan Bailey is hurt, and his replacement, Mike Nugent, has made four of five field-goal attempts while punter Chris Jones has dropped 14 of 26 punts inside the 20, 11th in the league. Dallas ranks 19th in kickoff returns (21.1 yards per return) and 20th in punt returns (7.3). It also ranks 17th in kick-return coverage (21.8) and fifth in punt-return coverage (5.4).
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Get the ground game back on track
The Cowboys feature a fast and athletic front, and as such, they don’t yield many big runs, as they’ve allowed only three runs of 20 yards or more. However, you can keep hitting singles against these guys. They’re allowing 4.5 yards per carry, which ranks 24th. The Chiefs’ running game hasn’t been the same since starting center Mitch Morse and starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif got hurt in September, but with Morse already back and Duvernay-Tardif potentially set to return, this could be an opportunity for the Chiefs to get rookie running back Kareem Hunt back on track.
2. Throw at the outside corners
The Cowboys have struggled to get off the field on third down. Orlando Scandrick is a good player, but teams have had success throwing at their other corners, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. Add that to a pair of safeties –– Byron Jones and Jeff Heath –– who haven’t made a ton of plays, and you get the recipe for a potentially-juicy aerial matchup. The Chiefs should specifically try to get Ty Hill matched up with Brown, who runs really well (4.35 40) but is handsy and has been whistled for a team-high six penalties.
3. Attack the run downhill
The Cowboys’ offense is rolling. They’re averaging 35 points per game in their last four games, and are rushing for an average of 196.5 yards per game during that span. Dead serious. That’s potentially big trouble for a Chiefs run defense that has been gashed all year, as the Chiefs rank 28th in rushing yards allowed per game (131.1) and have allowed a robust 4.9 yards per carry, which ranks 30th. The Chiefs’ only saving grace Sunday is that the Cowboys use a zone-heavy run scheme, which the Chiefs tend to defend a little better than the man/gap schemes teams like Pittsburgh used to bludgeon them. Still, Dallas boasts three all-pro offensive lineman and a stud running back (Ezekiel Elliott), so the Chiefs’ defensive line needs to fire off the ball hard and refuse to be reach blocked, while the inside linebackers need to attack downhill and stay gap sound.
4. Be disciplined on play-action/make receivers win 1-on-1
If the Chiefs can be disciplined on play-action –– which isn’t easy due to the Cowboys’ terrifying run game and quarterback Dak Prescott’s running ability –– they’ll force the Cowboys’ receivers to make plays, which isn’t a given. Dez Bryant is still good, but he hasn’t been as explosive as he used to be –– he’s gone 14 games without 100 yards receiving. Outside of him, Terrance Williams has some juice but has had a quiet year, while slot receiver Cole Beasley is steady, if unspectacular. If the Chiefs let these guys get some confidence early, it could be a long day. But if their corners can stick with these guys on the outside and make life difficult for them, it gives them a pathway to slow down a very strong offense.
Four Cowboys to watch
No. 4, QB Dak Prescott, 24 years old, 6-2, 238, second season
Ranked No. 14 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Team captain. NFL offensive rookie of the year in 2016, when he completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Pro Bowler in 2016. Is on pace to complete 62.8 percent of his passes for 3,586 yards, 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Smart player who generally makes good decisions and with the ball and gets through his progressions. Trusted to make audibles at the line of scrimmage. Is adept at throwing on the move and shows creativity when stressed by oncoming rushers (nine broken tackles), though he doesn’t always sense it quick enough. Has the arm strength to make the throws and throws a tight spiral. Shows the ability to throw with accuracy at all levels. Big, strong athlete with a great physical frame who can hurt you with his legs and is very dangerous on read option plays. Natural leader with guts who makes his teammates believe in him due to his mental toughness. Needs to do a better job protecting the ball; fumbled six times last year.
No. 21, RB Ezekiel Elliott, 22 years old, 6-0, 220, second season
Ranked No. 7 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Led the NFL in rushing as a rookie last year, when he rushed 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. Also caught 32 passes for 363 yards. First-team All-Pro in 2016. Pro Bowler in 2016. He’s on pace to rush 375 times for 1,577 yards and 14 touchdowns while also catching 43 passes for 480 yards and five touchdowns (looming suspension not withstanding). Possesses outstanding contact balance. Outstanding zone runner with the juice and speed to run away from defenses. Sometimes seeks out contact and can flashes the ability to run behind his pads. Runs with power and is difficult to bring down. Has a decent feel for how to slip defenders in tight spaces. Very good receiver out of the backfield who possesses natural hands and a knack for running after the catch on screens. Complete back who also has the size, strength and awareness to help in pass protection. Can deliver the blow on chip blocks like few other NFL running backs. Rarely fumbles, though he did last week against Washington. Plays with swagger.
No. 90, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, 25 years old, 6-3, 265, fourth season
Battled injuries the previous two seasons but is having a career year in a contract season and could well be the Cowboys’ midseason MVP. Already has 10 1/2 sacks this year, which is more than he totaled in his first three seasons combined (9 1/2). Is on pace to finish with 66 tackles and 25 sacks, and currently ranks third in the NFL in pressures (16). Has also racked up three forced fumbles. Is extraordinarily difficult to block when he is at his best, as he is now. Nice combination of size, speed and length. Super athletic and shows the ability to bend the corner. Often lines up against the right tackle. Has a solid pass-rush arsenal; will use an arm over, swim and a bull rush, among other moves. Plays his tail off and plays with an edge. Adequate against the run. Has been flagged five times.
No. 50, WLB Sean Lee, 31 years old, 6-2, 245, eighth season
Ranked No. 79 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Team captain. Ranked fourth in the league in tackles last season (145). First-team All-Pro in 2016. Is on pace to finish with 89 tackles this season. Gives the Cowboys a much-needed play-making element on defense. Solidly-built run-and-hit linebacker who is arguably the Cowboys’ most consistent defensive player. Good athlete and steady run defender who takes good angles, sheds blocks and plays the game with his eyes. Reliable tackler who has only missed three tackles all season, according to FO. Processes offensive concepts well and is a really smart football player. Rarely gets fooled; sniffs out misdirection and can spoil screens. Plays his tail off and is one of those rare defensive tempo setters. Has recorded 12 career interceptions and is a solid cover player, too. Not much of a blitzing threat (only 2 1/2 career sacks).
Projected Chiefs two-deep depth chart
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
11 Alex Smith (C, PB), 6-4, 220, 13 | 15 Patrick Mahomes, 6-3, 230, R
27 Kareem Hunt, 5-11, 208, R | 35 Charcandrick West, 5-10, 205, 4
42 Anthony Sherman, 5-10, 242, 7
14 Demarcus Robinson, 6-1, 203, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R
10 Tyreek Hill (C, PB), 5-10, 185, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R
12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 4 | 13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 176, 4
87 Travis Kelce (C, PB, AP), 6-5, 260, 5 | 84 Demetrius Harris, 6-7, 230, 4
72 Eric Fisher, 6-7, 315, 5 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3
70 Bryan Witzmann, 6-7, 320, 3 | 79 Parker Ehinger, 6-6, 310, 2
61 Mitch Morse, 6-6, 305, 3 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4
76 Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (Q, knee), 6-5, 321, 4 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4
71 Mitchell Schwartz (AP), 6-5, 320, 6 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3
95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, 2 | 99 Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 6-2, 307, 3
96 Bennie Logan, 6-2, 315, 5 | 98 Roy Miller III, 6-2, 318, 8
97 Allen Bailey, 6-3, 288, 7 | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 7
50 Justin Houston (Q, knee) (C), 6-3, 258, 7 | 92 Tanoh Kpassagnon, 6-7, 280, R
56 Derrick Johnson, 6-3, 242, 13 | 57 Kevin Pierre-Louis, 6-0, 230, 4
59 Reggie Ragland, 6-1, 252, 2 | 57 Kevin Pierre-Louis, 6-0, 230, 4
51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 8 | 92 Tanoh Kpassagnon, 6-7, 280, R
22 Marcus Peters (PB, AP), 6-0, 197, 3 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 4
38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 7 | 21 Eric Murray, 5-11, 199, 2
49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 4 | 30 Steven Terrell, 5-10, 197, 5
20 Steven Nelson, 5-11, 194, 3 | 23 Phillip Gaines, 6-0, 193, 4
25 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 4 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 4
Projected Cowboys two-deep depth chart
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
**14 Dak Prescott (C, PB), 6-2, 238, 2** | 7 Cooper Rush, 6-3, 225, R
**21 Ezekiel Elliott, 6-0, 220, 2** | 46 Alfred Morris, 5-10, 222, 6
*88 Dez Bryant (PB), 6-2, 220, 8 | 19 Brice Butler, 6-3, 220, 5
83 Terrance Williams, 6-2, 210, 5 | 85 Noah Brown (Q, thigh), 6-2, 225, R
*11 Cole Beasley (Q, concussion), 5-8, 180, 6 | 10 Ryan Switzer, 5-8, 185, R
*82 Jason Witten (C), 6-6, 263, 15 | 84 James Hanna, 6-4, 260, 6
*77 Tyron Smith (PB, AP), 6-5, 320, 7 | 75 Byron Bell, 6-5, 320, 7
64 Jonathan Cooper, 6-2, 308, 5 | 79 Chaz Green, 6-5, 318, 3
*72 Travis Frederick (PB, AP), , 6-4, 320, 5 | 73 Joe Looney, 6-3, 315, 5
*70 Zack Martin (PB, AP), , 6-4, 315, 4 | 73 Joe Looney, 6-3, 315, 5
*71 La’el Collins, 6-4, 320, 3 | 75 Byron Bell, 6-5, 320, 7
98 Tyrone Crawford (C), 6-4, 290, 6 | 97 Taco Charlton, 6-6, 270, R
*96 Maliek Collins (Q, foot), 6-2, 208, 2 | 92 Brian Price, 6-3, 318, 1
*95 David Irving, 6-7, 290, 3 | 76 Richard Ash, 6-3, 230, 1
**90 DeMarcus Lawrence, 6-3, 265, 4** | 93 Benson Mayowa, 6-3, 265, 5
57 Damien Wilson, 6-1, 245, 3 | 51 Kyle Wilber, 6-4, 245, 6
59 Anthony Hitchens, 6-0, 235, | 54 Jaylon Smith, 6-2, 245, 1
**50 Sean Lee (C, PB, AP), 6-2, 245, 8** | 52 Justin Durant, 6-1, 230, 11
30 Anthony Brown, 5-11, 196, 2 | 23 Bene Benwikere, 6-0, 195, 4
31 Byron Jones, 6-0, 205, 3 | 25 Xavier Woods, 5-11, 202, R
38 Jeff Heath, 6-1, 212, 5 | 35 Kavon Frazier, 6-0, 220, 2
*27 Jourdan Lewis, 5-10, 195, R
32 Orlando Scandrick (C), 5-10, 196, 10 | 23 Bene Benwikere, 6-0, 195, 4
2 Mike Nugent, 5-10, 190, 13
6 Chris Jones, 6-0, 205, 6
10 Ryan Switzer, 5-8, 185, R
10 Ryan Switzer, 5-8, 185, R
91 Louis Philippe Ladouceur, 6-5, 256, 13
Additional scouting notes
▪ Receiver Dez Bryant is currently dealing with a knee injury but at his best, he’s a super-competitive playmaker who must be accounted for at all times. He’ll occasionally line up in the slot and is a run-after-the-catch threat due to his combination of size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and strength. He’s tied for third in the league in drops with five, however. Ranked the No. 60 player in the NFL’s top 100.
▪ Tight end Jason Witten isn’t that explosive, but the 35-year old is still a reliable chain mover and third-down target. He’s also a good blocker.
▪ Left tackle Tyron Smith is battling a back issue. He’s still very good, though, even though he was whistled for holding twice last week.
▪ Left guard Jonathan Cooper might shed the draft bust label. The former first-round pick has played well with Dallas.
▪ Center Travis Frederick checked in at No. 87 on the NFL’s top 100 list for 2017. He’s got good size (6-3, 317), strength and quickness. Few players are as good as he is at climbing to the second level. Watch this guy if you want to learn how to play center, kids.
▪ Right guard Zack Martin checked in at No. 58 on the NFL’s top 100 list for 2017. Could very well be the league’s top guard. They don’t draw them up better than this guy. The 6-foot-4, 309-pounder is strong, physical and quick. He does it all well and understands blocking angles in space, to boot. Watching him and Frederick work together on combo blocks is an absolute joy for O-line aficionados. Elite player.
▪ Right tackle La’el Collins can finish you when he gets his hands on you, but he can be stressed by speed and will occasionally hold.
▪ Defensive tackle David Irving is a good player. He’s a former Chief, and someone they probably regret letting get away. He’s a long, athletic, disruptive pass rusher (six sacks in only three games this season) and is someone to be concerned about.
▪ Defensive tackle Maliek Collins is a Kansas City native. The Center graduate has recorded 15 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks in seven starts this season, but he’s questionable for the game with an injury.
▪ Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is the best of the bunch at his position for the Cowboys. He’s a crafty veteran who knows how to use his hands in coverage.
Prediction: Cowboys 30-23
This one could easily be a high-scoring affair. I think both offenses have a good chance to move the ball plenty, and there’s absolutely a chance the Chiefs simply outscore the Cowboys. But at this point, it’s difficult to pick the Chiefs to beat a team with an elite running game of this ilk. The Cowboys boast three all-pro linemen and an all-pro running back, and the odds are they’ll be able to move the ball consistently on the ground. That will give them an opportunity to control the clock and keep the Chiefs’ offense –– which could be back to full strength due to the possible return of their entire starting offensive line –– off the field enough to pick up the win.