With the NFL regular season nearing its close, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys are set for a critical encounter in Week 17. Both teams, having secured playoff berths, are now focused on improving their playoff seed in the highly competitive NFC.
The Lions, boasting an impressive 11-4 record, recently celebrated their first NFC North title since 1993 with a 30-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Despite this accomplishment, they face skepticism from oddsmakers, who have marked them as underdogs against the Cowboys—a nod to Dallas’s dominant home record.
Dallas, on a home hot streak, hasn’t tasted defeat at AT&T Stadium since the early 2022 season, tallying 15 consecutive home wins, including a flawless 7-0 in the 2023 season. Led by MVP contender Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ offense has been explosive at home. Key contributors like CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Jake Ferguson have been especially effective in Jerry’s World. Their defense, too, has been more resilient at home, with Daron Bland securing most of his league-leading interceptions in Dallas.
However, underestimating the Lions could be a mistake. Under Dan Campbell’s leadership, the team has shown a remarkable ability to win on the road, improving from a winless away record in 2021 to an impressive 6-2 record in the current season. As NFC North Champions, they are eager to demonstrate their tenacity in a hostile environment on primetime television, where they have excelled with a 4-0 record. No longer daunted by their underdog status, the Lions are ready to challenge the Cowboys and silence their doubters.
Let’s dive into the key strategies that could lead Detroit to a victory in Dallas.
Exploiting Cowboys’ Run Defense Shortcomings
The Detroit Lions’ primary strategy against the Dallas Cowboys hinges on targeting a noticeable weakness in Dallas’ armor: their run defense. The Lions’ offense, spearheaded by the dynamic rushing duo of Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery, stands out as the third most productive in the NFL, averaging an impressive 141.1 yards per game on the ground. Notably, Detroit leads the league in rushing yards when considering the output from traditional running back roles.
On the other side, the Cowboys have shown a tendency to falter against the run. They fall in the bottom half of the NFL in this aspect, allowing an average of 115.7 yards per game on the ground. This weakness was particularly evident in their recent matchup against the Buffalo Bills, where the Cowboys’ defense was breached for 266 rushing yards, led by 179 yards from James Cook.
Despite the anticipated return of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins bolstering the Cowboys’ defensive line, the Lions’ rushing pair of Gibbs and Montgomery appear well-prepared to meet the challenge. A key element of the Lions’ game plan will be to establish a dominant inside running game, thereby drawing the Cowboys’ defense and limiting their outside linebackers’ effectiveness in containment.
Montgomery and Gibbs are close to achieving a combined 2,000 rushing yards on the season.
Montgomery’s tally of 910 yards and 11 touchdowns, along with Gibbs’ 872 yards and nine touchdowns, highlight their balance and capability as a dual threat.
This focused running game strategy serves a dual purpose for the Lions. It’s not just about advancing down the field; it’s a tactical move to dominate time of possession. Keeping the Cowboys’ quarterback, Dak Prescott, and his unit off the field is key to slowing down their offense. This strategy is particularly viable with the Lions’ offensive line at full strength, giving offensive coordinator Ben Johnson a solid foundation for his game plan in Dallas.
Dominating the Turnover Game
Securing the turnover battle is always important, but for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, it’s particularly significant given their track record in 2023. The Cowboys’ defense boasts elite turnover creators in DB DaRon Bland and OLB Micah Parsons. Bland has notched eight interceptions this season, impressively returning six for touchdowns. His skill at luring quarterbacks into mistakes is a significant threat to Jared Goff.
Parsons, a force in the defense, excels at dislodging the ball, despite recording only one forced fumble this season. His aggressive style of play, which includes attempts to strip the ball and disrupt quarterbacks mid-read, has made him one of the league’s top defenders. His overall stats are remarkable: 13 sacks, two pass breakups, one fumble recovery, and 53 tackles in just 15 games. At just 24, Parsons leads the NFL in quarterback pressures (97) and pressure rate (23%), making him the key to the Cowboys defense.
For the Lions, quarterback Jared Goff’s care of the ball will be under the microscope.
While Goff has shed his early-career reputation for being turnover-prone, his track record shows that when he does lose the ball, it tends to occur in clusters—a trend Detroit must avoid on Saturday night. Goff’s improved ball security this season, nearly setting an NFL record for consecutive passes without an interception, will be critical against the Cowboys’ aggressive defense.
Recent games underscore the importance of turnovers for both teams. The Lions suffered losses in games where Goff committed multiple turnovers, while the Cowboys have lost all four games where their defense failed to force turnovers. In contrast, Prescott, known for critical interceptions in the past, has elevated his game this season, markedly improving his interception-to-touchdown ratio. The Lions have an opportunity to apply pressure on Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who remains susceptible to pressure, as seen in his increased sack count from 20 in 2022 to 36 already in 2023.
Maximizing Jameson Williams’ Impact in the Offense
A critical strategy for the Detroit Lions in their upcoming game against the Dallas Cowboys hinges on the continued involvement of wide receiver Jameson Williams. The Lions’ offensive potency has seen a notable upsurge since Williams becomes a focal point. This second-year player, known for his blistering speed, has been targeted more over the last two games. Over this stretch, he’s made nine receptions, a sharp increase from just 13 catches in the preceding 11 games. This surge in targets, deliberately orchestrated by Offensive Coordinator Ben Johnson, has been instrumental in Detroit’s enhanced scoring, as evidenced by their combined 72 points in these games.
The burgeoning chemistry between quarterback Jared Goff and Williams is becoming increasingly evident.
Williams’ versatility and threat as a scorer are being leveraged in innovative ways, making him a potential scorer with every touch. More importantly, his presence on the field opens opportunities for other key players in the Lions’ offense. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and tight end Sam LaPorta, along with the running back pair, find more space and opportunities as defenses shift their focus to contain Williams’ deep-threat capability.
This strategic use of Williams not only diversifies the Lions’ offensive playbook but also forces opposing defensive coordinators to make tough choices. Allocating resources to contain Williams inevitably means paying less attention to Goff’s other options, particularly in the middle of the field. This creates a more dynamic and unpredictable offense, capable of striking from multiple angles. St. Brown’s recent performances—seven receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos, followed by 12 catches for 106 yards and another touchdown versus the Vikings—are partially due to the space created by Williams’ threat on the field.
Given Williams’ increasing impact and potential for explosive plays, his speed will be a highlight in the upcoming game. His capacity to turn any reception into a touchdown, regardless of where he is on the field, poses a significant threat to the Cowboys’ defense.
A Defining Moment for the Lions
Facing a dominant Dallas Cowboys team on their home turf presents a serious challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity. For the Detroit Lions, this is a chance to ascend the NFC playoff ladder, a prospect that holds immense significance for a team and a city hungry for playoff success. Poised to capture the national spotlight in a much-anticipated primetime matchup, the Lions have a chance to make a statement on Saturday night.
BONUS: Spotlight on Detroit Lions Key Players
- TE Sam LaPorta: Rookie tight end Sam LaPorta is likely to be a primary target for Jared Goff, particularly with Micah Parsons and the Dallas defense applying pressure. LaPorta’s role will extend beyond receiving; his contribution as an extension of the offensive line will be vital in bolstering the Lions’ run game.
- RB David Montgomery: Known for his ability to run through contact, Montgomery’s role as the ‘bruiser’ is more critical than ever. His ability to drive the ball between the tackles will be key in drawing the Cowboys’ defense inward, creating space for Detroit’s playmakers on the perimeter.
- LB Alex Anzalone: Leading the team with 112 tackles and allowing zero touchdowns in pass coverage, Anzalone’s importance is critical. His ability to contain Cowboys RB Tony Pollard, a notable pass-catching threat, and TE Jake Ferguson, Dak Prescott’s reliable target, will be essential in stifling Dallas’ offense.
- DB Brian Branch: Like Anzalone, the rookie defensive back will be instrumental in curbing the Cowboys’ big plays, especially from the backfield. Branch will also need to execute timely blitzes to disrupt Prescott’s timing. With CB1 Cam Sutton dealing with a toe injury, Branch’s versatility and coverage skills will be under the spotlight, sometimes lining up against WR CeeDee Lamb in the slot.
- P Jack Fox: Despite a slight dip in his record-setting punting averages, Fox will be a key factor. His ability to force the Cowboys into challenging field positions could be a game-changer, placing the onus on Dallas to overcome poor field positioning and execute long drives consistently.
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
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Original Photo Credit: © Matt Krohn – USA TODAY Sports