The Rams have had the benefit of playing five of their last eight games at home, and that can certainly not be discounted. After starting the season 3-3, this team has gone 5-2, and outside of getting embarrassed by the Ravens, they have looked solid on defense in this stretch – with no other team topping 17 points against them, and with five of their last seven opponents scoring 12 or fewer points (in order: Falcons, Bengals, Bears, Cardinals, Seahawks). And after a tough stretch against the defenses of the Steelers, Bears, and Ravens in which they scored only 35 total points, the Rams have started to look like the Rams again, largely moving away from the deep passing game (as we explored a couple weeks ago would likely be the case), and instead focusing on Robert Woods (recent target counts of 9 // 18 // 9), Tyler Higbee (6 // 8 // 11), and Todd Gurley (recent carry counts of 25 // 6 // 19 // 23; recent reception totals of 3 // 3 // 1 // 4).
Gurley has not been a full-time player (79% last week), sharing snaps with Malcolm Brown; but the Rams have made a point over the last few weeks of getting Gurley more involved, with the 28-touch game against the Bears in Week 11 and the 27-touch game last week especially standing out. The Cowboys have been solid against running backs on the ground this year, allowing 4.09 yards per carry; though they are allowing the sixth most running back receptions, keeping paths open for another solid Gurley game.
The bigger story on the Rams after last week, however, was the limited snap counts for Cooper Kupp (19 // 68 snaps last week) and Brandin Cooks 26 snaps). Sean McVay’s explanation for all of this makes quite a bit of sense :: partly matchup-dependent (the Rams leaned on the run with heavy usage of 12 personnel), and partly the fact that the Rams’ rushing attack puts a lot of intense blocking responsibilities on the shoulders of receivers, so — essentially — if you go into a game knowing you plan to lean on the run, and you can also throw off the defense by showing them a different look than they were expecting, why not get those guys a bit of rest one week. The takeaways here are two-fold :: firstly, Kupp will have an opportunity to step back into a big role if the Rams have different ideas about how to attack this matchup, and secondly, Robert Woods seems to have emerged as the least expendable piece on this attack, with nine or more targets in four consecutive games, and with 95+ yards in each game in this stretch.
Similar to last year, the Cowboys’ zone-heavy coverage scheme has limited targets to wide receivers while pushing targets toward running backs and tight ends…while doing none of these things quite as effectively as they would actually like. Especially given the way Woods and Kupp operate in this offense (as horizontal-moving, zone-beating pieces), this should be considered a neutral matchup for the core pieces of the Rams passing attack; and while the zone scheme the Cowboys run is different from what Arizona and Seattle typically show, this defense does have a similar “bend but don’t break” mindset and approach to those two – choosing to try to clog areas of the field, rather than trying to keep a body on a body (which is also in contrast to the 49ers zone, which is a much tighter and more aggressive look). It’s foolish to try to pretend to know where volume will flow in this passing attack, especially as the Rams tend to allow the game to develop around their offense, and to find ways to beat the matchup as the game unfolds. But the Rams have been focused on the short to intermediate throws, locking Woods, “healthy tight end” (likely Higbee again), and Kupp in as solid bets for volume through the air. Woods and Higbee both blasted off in the games against Arizona and Seattle.
The Cowboys offense, of course, has been solid this year, carrying a number two DVOA ranking while posting the most yards and the eighth most points in the league. This offense has hit a rough patch of late, however (with most of their recent “production” coming in garbage time), and one of the primary causes of this rough patch seems to be the knee issue that Amari Cooper has been dealing with – an issue that has made this unit look closer to the one that struggled last year before they traded for Amari than to the one they had looked like since. Added to the knee issue for Amari will be a challenging matchup against Jalen Ramsey, which leaves three clear ways to play this passing attack:
1) You can play that Ramsey shuts down Amari, and the extra volume flows to Michael Gallup as a result. In this scenario, Gallup will soak up intermediate looks with a couple downfield shots mixed in, and he’ll help keep the Cowboys in this game with a big outing. (There is also an alternate path to this scenario in which Randall Cobb takes a couple short passes all the way, or picks up a chunk gain on a broken play to be the piece that excels as Amari gets slowed.)
2) You could play a scenario in which Amari gets slowed down, but not quite so much that they ignore him in the pass game. In this scenario, Amari is still getting his fair share of looks, but these looks are not as effective as you would need them to be. If Amari is seeing these looks, it’s also likely that this is partly because Gallup and Cobb are not being able to dominate their matchups, leaving opportunity for a solid game to emerge from one player in this group, but leaving none of these players with a tourney-winning score.
3) In this scenario, Amari is healthier than he has looked of late, and he is able to win in this difficult matchup, carrying the Cowboys on his own.
Given what we have seen from the Cowboys offense of late (and from the Rams defense of late), that middle scenario is the likeliest, though the Cowboys offense has been explosive enough that the other two angles are at least worth considering.
“Cause for consideration” in the Cowboys passing attack is at least somewhat heightened by the difficult matchup Ezekiel Elliott has against a Rams defense that ranks third in DVOA against the run and has allowed only one running back to crack 100 yards and score a touchdown this year. Zeke has not cracked 100 yards since Week 9, and his pass-catching role has been remarkably inconsistent, with recent target counts of 0 // 3 // 3 // 4 // 10 // 5. He gets his touches almost regardless, with recent carry counts of 23 // 20 // 16 // 21 // 12 (10 targets) // 19, and he is heavily involved in the red zone, giving him plenty of outs in this difficult draw – though the likeliest scenario here has any touchdowns or even big plays more making up for the slower production the rest of this game than shooting him to the top of the leaderboards.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I’m not quite as excited about the Rams offense as I was the last two weeks, as the Cowboys still have a solid all-around team, and have the talent on defense to slow down the Rams enough that this is certainly no slam dunk. But the Rams looked good against similar style competition lately, and each of Woods, Kupp, Gurley, and “healthy tight end” are likely to be in the mix for me this week. On the tight end front, the best case for DFS would be Gerald Everett sitting out another week and Higbee retaining the lead role, though if Everett returns it is at least a decent bet that he reclaims the larger share of the target pie as before. Woods seems to be a staple piece in this offense at the moment, making him a staple piece to consider. Gurley’s touch ceiling isn’t secure, but the possibility of another 25+ touch game makes him attractive. Kupp carries risk, but he also carries upside if the Rams’ game plan has them featuring their stud slot receiver more heavily this week.
On the Cowboys side, my inclination at the front end of the week is to largely avoid this team out of respect for the way the Rams defense has been playing the last couple months, though if going here, Gallup is the player I would be likeliest to lean on as a talented wideout in a sometimes very good offense with Amari likely to be clamped down by Ramsey. A slate-winner isn’t likely here, but it’s certainly in the cards, and depending on how I see this game stacking up against everything else, a small percentage of builds dedicated to that shot might end up making sense.