After a long week of rest for the Bengals (2-2) they now head down south for a Week 5 clash against the surprising Cowboys (3-1). Dallas has looked pretty good against weak competition and now faces a test from a Cincinnati team that dominated the Dolphins easily last Thursday.
Last season with Tony Romo out, the Cowboys couldn’t win at all, but in 2016 they offer a very different and tougher challenge to opposing teams. Their defense is holding its own - and creating turnovers - with a better secondary and the offense might have found the quarterback of its future after all. Dez Bryant is likely to miss the game, but the Cowboys still have a dynamic offense without him.
Here are five Cowboys players you should watch for on Sunday:
Zack Martin, guard:
He is not the best player on probably the best offensive line in football, but with Pro-Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith injured, Martin has shined. Interestingly, Martin is Tyler Eifert’s brother-in-law; Eifert’s sister married Martin this summer.
Dallas runs a lot, and efficiently as well, and the interior of the line is key to open up holes for star running back Ezekiel Elliott - more on him later.
Alongside center Travis Frederick, Smith is helping the Cowboys pound the rock on the ground, as evidenced by the 10.6 yards per carry averaged by Dallas’ running backs on runs at either side of him last week.
The Bengals are not the 49ers, and have been stout against the ground game of late, so it’ll be very interesting to see if the Cowboys can be successful on Sunday.
Dak Prescott, quarterback:
I don’t usually include quarterbacks on these lists because it is too obvious, any good team needs good play at the most important position in order to play well - maybe the Vikings or the Broncos, don’t. Nonetheless, Prescott has been amazing for Dallas so far and hasn’t looked like a rookie at all. He’s yet to throw and interception, and as the Bengals’ head coach, Marvin Lewis, said, “he’s barely throwing into traffic.”
The fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State is a perfect example of poise; he’s controlling the huddle and the offense as only the very good quarterback can, and he’s faring better as time goes by. A strong running game and an excellent offensive line have helped him too, but Prescott has shown he can make any play: rainbow throws, roll left, roll right, etc. That also allows Dallas to run the football well, as opposing defenses have to respect Prescott’s arm. He also proved last week that he can lead his team from behind, as the Cowboys scored 21 unanswered points after being down 14-0 in the first half against the 49ers.
HE DOESN’T MAKE MISTAKES.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back:
With two consecutive games rushing for more than 100 rushing yards, the former Ohio State star is getting better each week. Elliott is a tremendous athlete, but also a very good receiver out of the backfield and a strong blocker. He’s the complete package.
He’s arguably one of the best in the position despite having only played four games in the pros, and Elliott’s already showing the patience that would make Le’Veon Bell proud. This has been a key factor for the Cowboys’ improved running game throughout the first quarter of the season. As Dave Halprin wrote:
The first couple of games of the season the running game wasn't clicking like it usually does, some of that was because Elliott was being too impatient and ramming into the line instead of setting up his block and waiting for the holes to form. Now that he's gotten more used the speed and rhythm of the game, things are opening up for the Cowboys.
Vontaze Burfict will be waiting for him on Sunday, though.
Morris Claiborne, cornerback:
Playing under a one-year bargain deal after failing to make good on his hype as a sixth-overall pick of the 2012 draft, Claiborne has been the better player in the secondary of a slightly above-average defense that couldn’t create any turnovers last season.
The Cowboys have taken advantage of a weak schedule to kick off the year, and Claiborne will face his toughest test yet against one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, A.J. Green.
Dallas plays a lot of man coverage, but expect a lot of double teams on top for Green as they try to limit his production on deep balls. Also, Bengals’ receivers struggle to get separation against man.
Cole Beasley, wide receiver:
Without Bryant, the diminutive slot receiver has been Prescott’s best friend in the early going. Despite his height he is tough as hell, and can get open any time.
Beasley has gotten 65, 75, 73, and 66 yards in the first four games of the season and leads the NFL in catches on third down.
The Bengals need to take him and tight end Jason Witten away to make Prescott uncomfortable.