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Bengals vs Cowboys: Top 3 player matchups to keep an eye on

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These three matchups will play a huge role in determining whether the Bengals can return to a winning record after Week 5.

Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Bengals got back on track last week as they took out the frustrations of a 1-2 start on the struggling Miami Dolphins by a score of 22-7. It was a necessary win to get the season back to the point where the team’s record still feels salvageable, despite the slow 1-2 start.

This week, the Bengals will be looking to secure their first win over a team with a winning record. The only way to be recognized as one of the big boys is to beat them, so it’s appropriate that, to get back over .500, they will need to take down the 3-1 Cowboys.

It won’t be an easy task as the Cowboys have one of the best running games in the NFL this year and a rookie quarterback who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and already has two games with more than 100 yards. If the Bengals want to come out with a win, they will need to focus on these key matchups:

LB Vontaze Burfict vs QB Dak Prescott

Cowboys rookie interim starting quarterback Dak Prescott has been somewhat of a surprise so far in 2016. Filling in for an injured Tony Romo, he has been an effective field general for the Cowboys. They struggled a bit behind the newcomer in Week 1 against the Giants, but haven’t lost a game since.

The main reason for that success is the fact that Prescott simply hasn’t taken many chances with the football, due to having a top running game to lean on. So far, Prescott is only one of 18 quarterbacks to have already eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark on the season. But, his total yards (1,012) are the lowest of that group and he has the second least number of touchdown passes among starters (three). (Though, Andy Dalton is tied with him there.)

Prescott’s conservative play has resulted in a lot of short passes thrown in the middle of the field. In fact, only 11 of his 89 completions have gone for 20 yards or more.

That’s where weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict comes into the equation. At his position, he is much more involved in pass coverage than strongside linebacker Karlos Dansby or middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Throughout his career he has recorded three interceptions and 18 pass deflections. Having that kind of presence against tight ends and slot receivers will force the Cowboys to put more emphasis on beating the Bengals deep, which they’re not very experienced at. If they can’t, they will be forced into a one-dimensional running strategy.

Bengals running game vs Cowboys running defense

It’s no secret that the Bengals’ running game has struggled this season. So far, they have recorded the third worst yards per run (3.1), and the fifth worst yards per game (80.8). They do rank No. 14 in total rushing touchdowns (3), but that doesn’t seem to help much unless the passing game can put the team in a goal-to-go situation.

However, the Bengals have a chance to get the running game going this week. As adept as the Cowboys’ running offense has been, their running defense hasn’t quite held up their end. They rank fifth worst in the NFL in terms of average yards per run allowed (4.5), and have already allowed three runs this season that have gone for at least 20 yards, which is the seventh worst in the NFL.

In general, the Cowboys’ defense isn’t something to get excited about. Against the pass, they rank about average in terms of yards allowed per game (263.5), and they have allowed the 12th most passing touchdowns (seven). Something is going to have to give, so if the Bengals can establish a solid running game this week in Dallas, it could set up a great opportunity for a Bengals passing game that ranks fourth in total yards (1,164). However, if not, the passing game could struggle to carry the team to victory.

Bengals defensive line vs RB Ezekiel Elliott

As I’ve already touched on, the Cowboys have one of the very best running games in the NFL. In terms of total yards (596), they are only bested by the Cleveland Browns (597). They rank No. 8 in terms of yards per run (4.3), and No. 2 in total touchdowns (eight) behind only the San Francisco 49ers (nine) who have played an additional game. On top of that, they have produced the third most rushes that have gone for at least 20 yards (four).

If the Bengals are able to keep a lid on the Cowboys’ relatively lackluster passing game, they can focus the majority of their efforts into trying to slow down one of the NFL’s best running backs this season, Ezekiel Elliott. It’s a fool’s dream to think that the Bengals have a likely chance of completely shutting down the dynamic rookie running back. But, any running back can be limited with the right amount of focus and attention from the opposing defense.

If Elliott is allowed to run wild, the Bengals’ defense could be in for a very long and tiring day. If that happens, the Bengals’ offense would not get onto the field as often as they would like and the team would stand a very low chance of pulling out a win. But, if the defense can at least contain him to 100 yards or less and keep him out of the end zone, there is a good chance that Cincinnati can come out of this week with a convincing win.