Bills at Cowboys, Game Environment // Matchups ::
This game presents us with an interesting setup, as the Cowboys have racked up their fair share of doubters for “not yet having beaten a team with a winning record” — but this week, they’ll be hosting an 8-3 Bills team that has lost to New England, Philly, and Cleveland, while beating up on the Jets, Giants, Bengals, Dolphins (twice), Redskins, and Broncos. Their only “signature win” came against a currently 6-5 Titans squad. Both of these defenses are top six in yards allowed and points allowed, but both rank middle of the pack in DVOA. I do still think the Bills are better than their DVOA ranking (with much of the same personnel a year ago, they ranked second in overall DVOA), but their lack of pass rush and their issues at corner away from Tre’Davious White keep them more “fringe top 10 defense” for me than truly “shy-away unit.”
The closest thing to a shy-away matchup, of course, belongs to Amari Cooper as he does battle with Tre’Davious White. Cooper has been slowed by Slay and Stephon Gilmore the last couple weeks, though it also seems likely he has been slowed by his knee issue. White has allowed zero touchdowns (per PFF) and picked off four passes, so this is definitely a “bet on talent over matchup” spot.
While Amari runs into a difficult matchup, this will swing an easier matchup into the direction of Michael Gallup, who will do battle with Levi Wallace (as we explored last week: a winnable matchup for a number two receiver). In Buffalo’s run of soft matchups, they have played over half their games against teams that rank bottom six in pass offense DVOA, and the only teams they have faced that rank above 19th were the Patriots and Eagles. When the Browns played the Bills, Odell Beckham went 5-57-0 on 12 targets, while Jarvis Landry went 9-97-1 on 10 targets. There is a solid chance Gallup is in a better spot than the overall numbers on the season for the Bills would make it appear.
Over the last three weeks, apparently no-longer-washed-up Randall Cobb has benefitted from an Oprah game against Minnesota (“You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!”) and from two games in which Amari got checked by an elite corner and allowed extra targets to flow his way, with a likeliest range that is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes he has put on display this season (41 or fewer yards in half of his games; 69+ and a touchdown in another 40% of his game, with a touchdown in three of those four contests) — but it’s worth keeping in mind that those extremes exist. With Amari dealing with White, there is obviously opportunity for the higher-end of that extreme to pop up again.
This season, Ezekiel Elliott has not been seeing the same usage we were used to seeing from him las year (three or fewer targets in seven games; under 20 carries in five games), but the Bills are undeniably attackable on the ground, ranking 27th in DVOA against the run and allowing 4.61 yards per carry to running backs. Although Zeke has only six carries inside the five-yard-line, this team as a whole has not produced many plays inside the 10, and Zeke has the most red zone carries in the NFL. He has no multi-touchdown games, which is statistically fluky at this point.
While it isn’t impossible for other players on this offense to hit, your options are essentially “hoping to get lucky on a big play or two from Tony Pollard” (12 snaps last week) or “maybe I’ll guess right on a Cowboys tight end touchdown on an ugly tight end slate” vs a Bills team that has faced the fewest tight end targets in the NFL across the last two seasons.
On the other side of the ball, Dallas is built toward taking away downfield passing and taking away wide receiver targets — though as noted often in this space (seventh fewest wide receiver targets allowed this year; 10th fewest last year), they are not quite as effective in this area as they would like to be, making them more of a “slightly lowers expectations if we played out this slate a hundred times” defense than a true, shy-away matchup. Vegas has the Dallas offense currently pegged 25.75 points in this spot (just a couple clicks behind the Saints on this slate), and while there is some risk, there is a solid chance that this Cowboys offense (which ranks first in DVOA — third running the ball; third passing the ball) will do well enough to eventually force the Bills to keep pace.
The base offense for the Bills (so to speak) has John Brown and Cole Beasley as the clearest bets for volume in the pass game (with Isaiah McKenzie filling a “hope for busted play to pick up yardage” role behind these two), while Dawson Knox (recent target counts of 2 // 6 // 3 // 2) continues to split some of his reps with Tyler Kroft (1 // 0 // 1 // 1). As we’re well aware, the Dallas defense filters targets to tight ends (seventh most in the league), creating an outside chance that Knox gets more involved this week.
Last week against Chris Harris, John Brown ran into his first game of the season in which he finished below 50 receiving yards (finally leaving Michael Thomas as the only player in the league with 50+ in every game), while last week was also his first game finishing below five targets. He has eight or more targets in six of 11 games and has now hauled in five touchdowns. Behind JB, Beasley returns to face his old team as a solid floor option for this concentrated Bills attack who rarely sees his targets spike, but who rarely “disappoints” as well. Beasley has four touchdowns on the year of his own.
In the Bills backfield, Devin Singletary played 70% snaps last week, giving him 66% to 72% of the snaps in every one of his fully healthy games this year (and pretty firmly locking that in as his expected range), and while his carries spike when the Bills have a lead, he’s also the passing down back on this squad, giving him some level of game flow independence. He has recent touch counts of 23 // 11 // 16 // 22 and has four to six targets as his likeliest range. Unfortunately, Frank Gore (20) has doubled Singletary’s red zone carries (10), while absolutely dominating work inside the five (10 :: 2) — creating one of those most frustrating of backfield splits, in which one guy has the most valuable role between the 20s but needs some good fortune to hit for a touchdown. As for Gore: I recall when — during his absolute prime — he was considered to be a guy with an outside shot at Hall of Fame consideration. With his staying power, he’s now the NFL’s third-all-time rushing leader — which all but makes him a lock for the Hall of Fame. (That has nothing to do with this game, but it’s still wild.) Gore has nine to 11 carries in four of Singletary’s six fully healthy games (with outliers of five carries and 15 carries — and with this game, as a road underdog, likelier to land him on the lower end than the higher). He’ll need a number of things to break his way in order to have value in this spot.
Finally — given the way this game sets up — Josh Allen and Dak Prescott both join this surprisingly robust quarterback pool on the slate. If it proves that the Buffalo defense isn’t all the surface numbers make it seem, and if their lack of pass rush hurts them in a big way in this spot, Dak could get going, and Allen could get aggressive in return. There is obviously opportunity for these two squads to turn in a more grinding affair, but there is also opportunity for this game to take off as it moves along, with Dak and the Cowboys passing attack the likeliest drivers of a back-and-forth affair.
Xandamere’s Bonus Showdown Notes! ::
- We get some wonderful pricing leverage in this game. Dawson Knox is $4,400 while Blake Jarwin is $3,000. On the full day slate, Jarwin is more expensive than Knox. Great leverage spot. (See notes at the bottom of the Bears // Lions game for Xandamere’s thoughts on how to handle these pricing leverage spots.)
- Zeke is objectively the best skill position play, but he’s also very expensive and the Cowboys aren’t using him in the run game like they did last year.
- The receivers in this game are kind of tough to pick apart as the top 5 guys are priced really close. When price is considered, I’d rank them Gallup, Brown, Amari, Cobb, Beasley. See JM’s writeup for more thoughts on the matchups here!
- Singletary is awfully spendy for a guy who isn’t seeing 18+ touches per week. Gore is awfully cheap for a guy who is still seeing 9-13 or so touches per week and who is hogging all of the goal line work.