Game Preview

Tuesday Night Football Preview: Cowboys at Ravens

I bet you didn’t know that TNF Preview articles are ambiguous. Week 13 did not have a Thursday night game, so this week I’ll provide my first-ever TUESDAY Night Football Preview article. Both teams this week enter the game in desperate need of a win. The Baltimore Ravens have lost their last three games, while the Dallas Cowboys were embarrassed 41-16 on Thanksgiving by their biggest rivals and have dropped 5 of their last 6 games overall. Both teams have struggling passing offenses, but their passing defenses couldn’t be more different from one another. The Cowboys have an open door policy when it comes to opposing wide receivers getting open, while the Ravens secondary is deep and talented led by Marlon Humphrey. This game will also feature a battle of former Ohio State Buckeye running backs with Ezekiel Elliott on one team and J.K. Dobbins on the other team.

– TUESDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL PREVIEW –

Dallas Cowboys (3-8) at Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

Spread: Ravens -8 | Over/Under 45.5

Vegas Odds

Dallas Cowboys are 2-9 ATS in their last 11 games and 2-4 ATS in their last 6 games against the Baltimore Ravens. The Cowboys are 1-7 straight up in their last 8 games on the road and 0-5 straight up against their last 5 opponents in the AFC. The total has gone UNDER in 4 of the Cowboys’ last 6 games. However, the total has gone OVER in 4 of the last 5 games the Cowboys have played on the road against the Ravens.

Baltimore Ravens are 2-4 ATS in their last 6 games and 5-13-1 ATS in their last 19 games against NFC opponents. The Ravens are 0-5-1 ATS in their last 6 games played against NFC East opponents. The Ravens are 1-4 straight up in their last 5 games but are 13-6 straight up in their last 19 home games. The total has gone UNDER in 8 of the Ravens’ last 12 games and the total has gone UNDER in 6 of the Ravens’ last 9 games played in December.

Quarterbacks

Andy Dalton lacks deep ball throwing ability, completing 30-percent of his deep ball passes (No. 30 among quarterbacks). This lack of deep accuracy paired with a weakened Cowboys’ offensive line has led to averaging 5.7 yards per pass attempt (No. 36). Surprisingly, the low depth of target on Dalton’s passes has not led to a high completion percentage. Disregarding throwaways, Dalton’s true completion of 70.7-percent is No. 29 among quarterbacks. Dalton has been unable to deliver passes to his receivers, with a 74.3-percent (No. 29) catchable pass rate. Dalton is average among quarterbacks at throwing under pressure with a 40.0-percent (No. 19) completion percentage while under pressure. He is also average at play-action with a 66.7-percent (No. 17) play-action completion percentage. The way to beat Dalton comes down to the defensive backs and their ability to cover the Cowboys’ wide receivers. Blitz the Cowboys depleted offensive line and take away the check-down options and the short routes. Force Dalton to throw it deep, which he’s been incapable of doing this season.

I wrote about Lamar Jackson the passer in last week’s preview article. To recap, Jackson is similar to Dalton in his completion percentage when disregarding throwaways. His 70.3-percent true completion percentage is just behind Dalton’s 70.7-percent. The trick to stopping Jackson is to bring pressure (35.8-percent pressured completion percentage, No. 25), but don’t allow him to escape the pocket (71.7-percent play-action percentage, No, 4) and use his legs to extend the play. Despite his inaccuracies, Jackson’s 8.4 air yards per pass attempt is just outside the top-10 among quarterbacks. Fortunately for Jackson, the Cowboys defense is far from the Steelers’ defense he was set to face on Thanksgiving before the Ravens’ covid outbreak.

Running Backs

Ezekiel Elliott remains fantasy relevant solely on the volume he receives in all aspects of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense. He is top-5 in carries and targets among running backs and has a second-highest weighted opportunity among 2020 running backs. He leads running backs with a 79.2-percent snap share and 291 routes run. Despite an overwhelming advantage in touches, Elliott is outside the top-10 in fantasy points per game among running backs. This is due to his ineffectiveness and inefficiency as a player in the running AND passing game. In the running game, only two of his 181 carries have gone for longer than 15 yards. To put this in perspective, Frank Gore is the only running back with 100 or more carries that have less than 15+ yard carries. His 0.96 yards created per touch is right inside the top-50 among running backs. Not exactly what one would expect from a perceived elite running back. In the passing game, Elliott’s 6.6 yards per reception, 0.88 yards per route run, and 69.6-percent catch rate all fall outside the top-25 among running backs.

The Ravens’ RBBC has reared its ugly head again. If the Ravens are smart, they will continue to feature J.K. Dobbins heavily (12+ carries in three of his last four games). On 72 (No. 42) carries, Dobbins has a 5.6-percent (No. 10) breakaway run rate (carries of 15+ yards) and he is an elusive runner with a 30.3-percent (No. 10) juke rate. Paired up with his 1.69 (No. 13) yards created per touch and 86.9 (No. 12) run-blocking efficiency, and Dobbins should lead this backfield this week. Dobbins has secured the passing game role in this backfield. He has over 50 more routes run than Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards combined. Edwards is relegated to third-string running back with Dobbins’ emergence and the only threat to Dobbins having a three-down role is Ingram on early-down work. Ingram has been an uninspiring runner though. He’s non-elusive (16.1-percent juke rate, No. 50) and fails to create much with his opportunities (1.02 yards created per touch, No. 43).

Wide Receivers

Amari CooperFollow the targets. Follow the air yards. Amari Cooper is the play here in the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver core. On the season, Cooper has a top-30 target share (22.1-percent) and hog rate (15.1-percent). In the past two games, Cooper has slightly out-targeted CeeDee Lamb (15-13), but Cooper has nearly quadrupled Lamb’s receiving yards (193-55). Lamb now faces one of the top slot cornerbacks in the NFL in Marlon Humphrey according to PFF (72.3 PFF grade, No. 3 among nickelbacks). Humphrey has allowed fewer than 60 receiving yards to opposing wide receivers in seven straight games and counting.

Let’s not get cute here. Dez Bryant’s return to the NFL is an amazing story and the revenge game narrative against the Dallas Cowboys is intriguing, but the safest bet in this receiving core is Marquise Brown, and that’s not saying much. Brown has had 100+ air yards in two of his three previous games and last week the air yards led to his best fantasy performance in six weeks when he went for 4/85/1 against Joe Haden and the Pittsburgh Steelers with two backup quarterbacks throwing him the ball. With 662 (No. 3) unrealized air yards on the season, Brown is always one big play away from a fantasy-relevant performance. With Lamar Jackson returning and the Cowboys’ secondary weaker than the Steelers’ secondary, Brown is the best bet of the receiving core to produce in this game.

Tight Ends

Dalton Schultz isn’t a flashy fantasy option at tight end, but he’s an option with a high floor and the upside potential. Schultz has caught 44 receptions, despite only 47 of his 66 targets deemed catchable. Schultz is No. 10 among tight ends in deep threats with 5 and his 9 red-zone targets are No. 14. Over the past four weeks, Schultz has run 30 or more routes three times. In those performances, he scored 11.3, 8.8, and 7.4 fantasy points. No Mark Andrews or Nick Boyle for the Baltimore Ravens. That means the Ravens will start Luke Willson this week. Let’s not spend much time discussing Willson; he ran 14 routes and played 83-percent of his team’s snaps last week, but he dropped BOTH targets thrown to him. He isn’t on the fantasy radar in this game.

Defense/Special Teams

The Dallas Cowboys’ defense is surprisingly good at generating pressure. The 24.3-percent of pressure per opposing quarterback dropbacks is fifth-best in the NFL. This is despite the Cowboys being a league-average blitzing team; they blitz on 26.6-percent of opposing quarterback dropbacks. The Cowboys don’t allow many first down passing plays (125, fourth-fewest). However, this is due to their defense allowing the fourth-most rushing first downs (97) and allowing a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry. The Cowboys’ passing defense is just as bad at generating stops. Opposing quarterbacks have combined for a 105.1 passer rating (third-highest allowed) and allowed 8.3 adjusted yards per attempt (third-worst).

The Baltimore Ravens’ defense leads the NFL in the percentage of blitzes per quarterback dropback with 43.7-percent.  In large part because of how frequent they blitz, the Ravens are No. 8 among teams in generating pressure on quarterbacks per dropback. The Ravens are a below-average (No. 17) defense in generating sacks with 27 and have the fourth-most missed tackles by their defensive unit with 88. Only the winless New York Jets’ defense averages more missed tackles per game from their defensive unit than the Ravens. Good luck converting third downs on the ground against the Ravens; their defense has allowed the fourth-fewest rushing first downs (62). The Ravens’ pass defense allows the second-lowest average depth of target (7.4), a sign of the talent of their secondary’s coverage skills and their tendency to blitz heavily.

Final Thoughts

Both teams have quarterbacks that struggle with inaccuracies, but the Ravens have the advantage with Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability. Jackson is more likely to overcome his passing inaccuracies than Andy Dalton is because the Cowboys’ pass defense is swiss cheese. The Ravens also have the advantage on the ground, where J.K. Dobbins is positioned to have a breakout performance against a bottom-tier rushing defense of the Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott is a big name player that hasn’t lived up to expectations of his past performances. The Ravens’ defense is superior to the Cowboys’ defense. I expect the Ravens to dominate the Cowboys in all aspects of this game. 8 points is a lot of points for a team to cover, but on a neutral field, the spread would only be 5 points (home teams are given 3 points generally). Because the Ravens are a better all-around team that took the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers to the limit last week with a covid-riddled roster, give me the Ravens to cover. The total is a tough call and I believe it will be close. Give me the UNDER on the game. RAVENS 27-17

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