The Los Angeles Rams face a tough opponent to open the 2020 season of the NFL schedule in the Dallas Cowboys, a team most expect to win the NFC East outright this season. This will be the inaugural game at SoFi Stadium and will be the Prime-Time game on the Sunday evening/afternoon slot.
Both teams will have questions going into this game and hope to find answers, or direction, as they look for the first win of the season.
1st Stance – Offense
As with the start of any season, this is typically the area of concern and hopefully growth for most teams. This season, however, is much different with a lack of a pre-season and limited practice, offense is the area that will suffer the most for most teams as timing and personnel packages all have to be evaluated, practiced, perfected. Scrimmages help but are not the same as game situations and many offenses will struggle in the first three to four weeks – a quarter of the season.
Both Dallas and Los Angeles have a mostly returning offensive core that should be able to make more strides than most and Dallas has an edge in that their only losses (barring injury between now and kickoff) are Jason Witten (TE), Randall Cobb (WR) and Travis Frederick (C). Los Angeles, on the other hand, lost Todd Gurley (RB) and Brandin Cooks (WR), both elite athletes but not without their struggles in 2019.
Both teams are excited to add new additions that should see a lot of playing time, especially as the season progresses. Dallas brings in CeeDee Lamb (WR), projected by many to be the best WR of the rookie class and Los Angeles will roll out both Cam Akers (RB) and Van Jefferson (WR), both thought by many to be value steals in the NFL Draft that will make an immediate impact.
Will Dak Prescott prove he is worth the large deal? For that matter, will Jared Goff? This is a big year for both, and this game is the catalyst to the start the season. It is too early to say ‘must win’, but it is important for both to get off to good starts.
Dallas prevails in the tale of the tape for offense in this match-up. The QB play has been more consistent, the changes on offense are considered by many to be upgrades and they have been trending as a top 10 offense for the past two seasons with no reason to think they won’t be there again. The RB position is better and although the Rams are better overall in the WR/TE corps, the Rams are still trying to figure out how to best position the offensive line to protect the quarterback and although there are plans to make the QB more mobile this season, until they play out we’ll have to wait and see.
2nd Stance – Defense
If defense wins championships, both teams must wonder which defense will show up and if there be consistency this season. Last season both teams not only had the exact same record through the first 12 weeks of the season, they had the *exact* same record week-over-week offsetting for the bye weeks (8 and 9). It looked like the Rams were heading the right direction in weeks 13 and 14 with wins and the Cowboys were on a two game slide when they met in week 15; the Rams ran into a buzz-saw as they lost at home 44-21 and it wasn’t ever close and the spoiler-minded Cowboys kept the Rams from making the playoffs.
To be fair, the Rams had problems with self-infliction throughout the season, the Cowboys simply put them out of their misery. In week 4 they got drubbed by Tampa Bay (with Jameis Winston, not Tom Brady) as the defense gave up 55 points and 464 total yards. The following week the Rams had a chance to beat the Seahawks, only to lose on a missed FG attempt by Greg Zuerlein (now with the Cowboys). Week 10 the Rams lost to the Steelers in a very sloppy game by both teams and week 12 brought the most embarrassing loss in a long time (at home no less) to the Baltimore Ravens. In a must win in week 16 to the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams defense again under-performed, and the Rams playoff hopes were dashed. Had the Rams won any of these games they would have made the playoffs for a third straight year.
The Cowboys had their defensive woes as well, giving up 34 points to Green Bay in week 5 and 24 points to the New York Jets (the J-E-T-S!!!) the following week, both losses. In week 14 they gave up 31 to Chicago and essentially lost the division and playoffs at the same time.
The Cowboys were more consistent on Defense, the Rams were a roller coaster – when they were good, they were great and when they were bad, they were dreadful.
The Rams have the edge here with the best defensive player in the game today in Aaron Donald and the coverage of Jalen Ramsey. Can the defense hold Ezekiel Elliot to 47 yards like they did in the playoffs in 2018? They will have to, or something close to it, to keep this game close.
3rd Stance – Special Teams
Special teams can often be a game-changer, especially in games that are close – a good and well-executed special teams play can change field position or even put some points on the board that can decide the outcome of a game.
In the 2019 season, neither team stood out in this area compared to the rest of the leagues as whole, but certain players did. The Rams ranked 23rd in the league for DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) while the Cowboys ranked 30th. The Cowboys are putting more emphasis on special teams this year with the hiring of Jim Fassel (former Rams Special Teams Coach) and pulling Greg Zuerlein from the Rams. The Rams have the ever-consistent potential future HOF punter in Johnny Hekker and a rookie seventh round pick in Samuel Sloman; the Rams are banking that Sloman will have more success than Zuerlein did at just under 73% in 2019 (less than 50% between 40-49 yds).
Ranking how the Rams will do in the kicking game is a guess and there will likely be some issues, but projecting that the kicking game will do better than they did last year is fair. The Rams are better in all facets of special teams and this could be the difference in this game.
4th Stance – Intangibles
Measuring the three phases of the game is critical to picking a winner/loser in an NFL matchup but does not tell the entire story. For this match-up, there are some story lines that are worth mentioning:
- Coaching – The byline here reads Sean McVay (Wunderkind) vs Mike McCarthy. McVay got some help in the offseason and hired Kevin O’Connell (Off Coordinator), Brandon Staley (Def Coordinator) and John Bonamego (Special Teams Coordinator). All three come with very good NFL pedigrees and early indications from training camp are that they are not only a good fit, they will bring value to the season. The Rams are 5-2 against McCarthy as a head coach, advantage Rams.
- Franchise – Both franchises have storied pasts with Los Angeles playing the role of nomad the past few decades to finally find a home and Dallas being called ‘Americas Team’ to the delight of Cowboys fans and the disdain of the haters. Will “The House” be undefeated in week 1 or will the visiting team prevail? Push here as America’s Team is on the road and until the Rams claim it, they might as well be also.
- Trend/Mojo – As this is a week 1 game, we need only to look to the last two seasons between these two teams to attempt to find a trend. In 2018, The Rams blistered the Cowboys in the playoffs and the Cowboys returned favor in 2019, essentially ending the Rams season on the way. Let’s call this the grudge match with the Rams feeling the most recent pain – advantage Rams.
- Key Injuries: As of posting, key injuries for Dallas : questionable for Sunday are Amari Cooper (undisclosed), Xavier Woods (undisclosed), Luke Gifford (undisclosed), and Chidobe Awuzie (leg); injured reserve (IR) but expected back for week four are Sean Lee (Hernia), La’el Collins (Hip), and Ventell Bryant (Knee); on the IR are Mitch Hyatt (Knee) and Azur Kamara (undisclosed). For Los Angeles : Darrel Henderson (hamstring) is questionable, Terrell Lewis (knee) is out for week 1, expected to return for week 2 and Justin Lawler (foot) and Travin Howard (knee) are on the injured reserve. Advantage Rams.
- Weather will not be a factor in the new SoFi Stadium – Total push as the weather does not favor either team.
Prediction – The Rams win their home opener on a pair of touchdowns and field goals to match, while the Cowboys struggle to get into the end zone and play catch up in the field goal game. Final score, Rams 20, Cowboys 16.