COWBOYS // COLTS OVERVIEW
Cowboys at Colts has surprisingly become one of the most exciting games of the year, with the Cowboys riding a five game win streak, and with the Colts having won six of their last seven games. The Colts have primarily gotten here with a fast-paced offense that scores a lot of points (first in pace of play // eighth in points per game), while the Cowboys have slowed down the pace (28th), leaned on the run (25th in pass play rate), and played strong defense (second in points allowed). Only three teams have allowed fewer yards than the Cowboys this year, and only seven teams have allowed a lower drive success rate. With all that said, it’s worth noting that the Texans entered last week’s home game against the Colts ranked second in opponent drive success rate and fifth in points allowed. This is a “challenging but not impossible” spot for a Colts team that will benefit from playing this game at home. Vegas has managed to fade public sentiment (which has a tendency to over-bet the Cowboys), installing the Colts as three point home favorites in a game with an Over/Under of 47.0.
COWBOYS RUN OFFENSE
On paper, the Colts have been tough against the run this year — ranking sixth in yards allowed per carry while ranking fifth in DVOA — though it is fair to question the validity of these numbers, as Indy has faced only four teams that rank even top 14 in DVOA on the ground, while facing only three teams that rank top 14 in yards per carry. (Indy has not faced a single team that ranks top eight in either category.) Against the teams that are in this “nine to 14” range of rankings (Washington, New England, Cincy, Miami), the Colts allowed rushing // receiving lines of:
:: Washington — 15-21-0 rushing // 16-122-0 receiving
:: New England — 20-98-1 rushing // 11-89-1 receiving
:: Cincinnati — 18–93-1 rushing // 6-65-0 receiving
:: Miami — 22-99-1 rushing // 6-74-1 receiving
Dallas does not rank top eight in either rush offense DVOA or yards per carry themselves, but this unit very clearly ranks in the same per-play range as the last three teams listed above, and with Ezekiel Elliott boasting recent touch counts of 30 // 31 // 29 // 40 (with reception totals of 7 // 5 // 6 // 12), there is plenty of room for him to succeed in this spot. On paper, he carries the highest floor/ceiling projection on the slate.
COWBOYS PASS OFFENSE
No team in the NFL has forced a shallower aDOT than the Colts, but only one team has allowed a higher catch rate — a setup that has led to the Colts ranking a middling 18th in yards allowed per pass attempt. While these raw numbers appear moderately attackable, however, digging down one layer deeper reminds us that the Colts tilt their Tampa 2 coverage heavily toward wide receivers — with this team facing the most running back targets in the NFL, the fourth most tight end targets, and the fewest wide receiver targets. On average, the Colts face only 16.1 wide receiver targets per game — an extremely low mark that introduces some floor concerns for Amari Cooper at his quickly-rising price. Across the last four weeks, Amari’s target counts have gone 5 // 9 // 8 // 13, with his 30 targets across the last three weeks accounting for a healthy 26.5% of the total looks on this team. Last week was the first week in this stretch in which Amari saw legitimate downfield work, with only two total targets coming more than 10 yards downfield in Weeks 12 and 13 combined (one was a 15-yard out route that carried him to the sidelines; the other was the post route that he caught against Washington on Thanksgiving before putting on the brakes, reversing field, and running another 60 yards for a touchdown). Amari’s five downfield targets last week were primarily designed to attack Eagles’ weakest link Sidney Jones, so it is no guarantee we see similar deployment this week against a Colts defense that does a better job than any team in the league at forcing short throws. With all that said: Amari’s ceiling is undeniable right now, while his connection with Dak has been strong — producing an 86.7% catch rate across the last three weeks. Amari’s usage will make it difficult for him to fail, but his chances of reaching upside are slimmer in this spot than they were the last few weeks.
Behind Amari, this passing attack has belonged primarily to Zeke, with another 22.1% of the targets across the last three weeks flowing his direction. Remaining pass catchers have seen the following target counts since Amari began his explosion in Week 12:
Gallup carries the most upside, though he and Dak continue to struggle in their connection, with a 50% completion rate between these two across the last three weeks (good for an 11-119-0 line) — making him nothing more than a speculative play. Jarwin’s spike in targets last week came with the Cowboys running 99 plays and throwing the ball an uncharacteristic 54 times. There is a chance he sees another small spike against a Colts team that filters targets to tight ends, but Zeke is likely to be the first look ahead of Jarwin on plays that force Dak away from the wide receivers. Beasley is more valuable in real life than he is in fantasy and will require an outlier game in order to provide value.
COLTS PASS OFFENSE
The Cowboys’ defense runs a lot of the same concepts as the Colts’ defense (though with more talented pieces) — leading to this team allowing a 5.6% increase on the league-average catch rate, while forcing a below-average aDOT and tackling well after the catch. The Cowboys rank a nonthreatening 13th in yards allowed per pass attempt — though similar to the matchup that the Colts present on the other side of this game, the Cowboys have faced the second fewest wide receiver targets and allowed the second fewest wide receiver receptions, while facing the second most tight end targets and the 14th most running back targets. Last week against an Eagles team that torched them with Zach Ertz a few weeks back, the Cowboys were able to tilt coverage to force Carson Wentz to look elsewhere, but this will be more difficult to do against a Colts team that boasts T.Y. Hilton as a field-stretcher. Eric Ebron has target counts of 16 // 8 across the last two weeks, keeping him on track for another useful game in this spot.
The matchup is also less daunting for Hilton than the season-long numbers make things appear, as Dallas has played an absolutely cake schedule of passing matchups — with five games against bottom-rung attacks (two against Washington // one against Detroit // one against Tennessee // one against Jacksonville), another three games against run-heavy teams (Panthers // Texans // Seahawks), a game against the season-long-struggling Giants, and two games against the season-long-struggling Eagles. The only games the Cowboys have had against noteworthy passing attacks have come at home against the Saints (in a game in which the Cowboys dominated time of possession and the Saints threw only 21 passes) and on the road against Atlanta — where Matt Ryan completed 24 of 34 passes (70.6%) for 291 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones went 6-118-1 in that game on nine targets. DeAndre Hopkins also went 9-151-0 on 13 targets in this matchup, while Golden Tate went 8-132-2 for the Lions. Short-term memory makes it feel funny to put T.Y. in the same conversation as Julio and Hopkins, but long-term memory reminds us that Hilton led the NFL in receiving yards in 2016 before playing with Jacoby Brissett last year and dealing with Andrew Luck’s shoulder and some injuries of his own through the first half of this year. In his last four games, Hilton has target counts of 9 // 10 // 13 // 12. His floor is very much in play here (somewhere in the range of 5-50-0), but his ceiling remains as high as any player on the slate, making him a risk/reward option this weekend.
This passing attack flows almost exclusively through Ebron and Hilton (an awesome 52.7% of Luck’s total passes across the last two weeks have gone to these two), with Nyheim Hines seeing recent target counts of 9 // 5, Chester Rogers going 0 // 6, Zach Pascal going 1 // 6, and Dontrelle Inman going 6 // DNP. Inman is expected to return this week to provide a set of hands on underneath routes. He’ll need a touchdown or some missed tackles in order to show up on the leaderboards this weekend. Distribution behind Inman is a guessing game.
COLTS RUN OFFENSE
The worst matchup in this game goes to the Colts’ rushing attack, as Marlon Mack and his recent yardage totals on the ground of 61 // 85 // 27 // 33 will be taking on a Cowboys run defense that ranks fourth in DVOA and first in yards allowed per carry. Only three teams have allowed fewer rushing yards to running backs, and only two teams have allowed more touchdowns. In matchups such as this one, the Colts have shown a tendency to abandon the run and take to the air, furthering lowering the floor on Mack. With only six targets across his last four games and no games in this stretch above 16 carries, he will need an unpredictable spike in workload or a couple of broken plays in order to provide useful value on this slate.
Zeke stands out to me as one of the top floor/ceiling plays on the slate, with his outlook enhanced in the pass game in this spot, and with a winnable matchup on the ground. The Cowboys are not going to run another 99 plays here (63 to 68 plays is a more reasonable expectation), so somewhere in the range of 25 to 30 touches is likelier for Zeke than the 40 he saw last week — but he should still be able to provide strong production as the engine of the Cowboys’ offense. Elsewhere on this team, Dak has a shot to ride Zeke and Amari to another strong game, keeping him in the tourney conversation. Amari carries a modest floor in this spot for the price, with his chances of reaching upside slimmer than last week — though the upside is obviously very much still in place.
My attention on the Colts’ side of this game will swing over to Luck, Hilton, and Ebron, as the Colts have shown a tendency in back-to-back weeks to lean heavily on the pass when taking on a team that is strong against the run. Hilton and Ebron have combined for target counts of 20 and 29 across the last two weeks, and both guys will have a solid shot at producing value this week. Luck has carried one of the highest floors and ceilings at the quarterback position this year. Against a Cowboys defense that has been a standout unit lately, none of these plays are as secure as I would be looking for most weeks — but given the strange nature of this week’s slate, these guys are very much in the floor/ceiling conversation for me.