8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cowboys -4.5, Over/Under: 40
Fringe Playoff Hopefuls look to create some momentum after a much-needed Bye Week as the Dallas Cowboys host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In many ways, the 2018 campaign was always destined to be an odd one for the Titans (3-4, 2nd in AFC South), who despite advancing to the Playoffs for the first time since in a decade, opted to bring in an entirely new Coaching Staff, headlined by Mike Vrabel. Essentially, what Tennessee General Manager Jon Robinson was trying to accomplish is something that so many of his ilk attempt to do: replace the man who took you from Point A to Point B, with someone who will hopefully take them from Point B to Point C. Granted, it’s easy to see why Robinson settled on Vrabel, with both men sporting deep New England ties, even if the longtime Linebacker lacks the requisite Head Coaching experience. Predictably, this season has been very much a mixed bag for the Titans, who after dropping their Season Opener (a bizarre loss to the Miami Dolphins that was interrupted by a nearly 4-Hour Long Weather Delay), grinded out three consecutive victories, only follow that up with three straight losses. So what’s going on down in Nashville, you ask? Well, arguably the biggest problem has been the development and further progression of the Offense, or more particularly Marcus Mariota, whose regression a year ago in many way prompted the aforementioned regime change. To say that it’s been a jarring transition for the Fourth-Year Quarterback into Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur’s scheme would be an understatement; Mariota has completed 66.0% of his Passes for an average of just 171.5 Yards on a career-low 5.44 Net Yards per Attempt, with only Three Touchdowns in comparison to Five Interceptions. Injuries have played a role here, with a nagging strained elbow limiting his effectiveness, while a suddenly porous Offensive Line has left him at the mercy of the Pass-Rush. Case in point; in their embarrassing 0-21 shutout loss to Baltimore three weeks ago, the former Heisman was sacked a whopping ELEVEN times, driving his total up to nineteen in the first seven games of the term. It’s a perplexing issue in Tennessee, for the Offensive Line has and was to be the strength of this team, particularly with Pro Bowl Tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin manning the flanks. However, the weak link has been on the interior, where Guards Quinton Spain (Shoulder) and Josh Kline (Undisclosed) have been hampered by injuries, leaving Center Ben Jones oftentimes overmatched at the point of attack. Needless to say, if the Protection is dissolving on the interior, then life will likely be miserable for any Quarterback, for they’ll rarely have the luxury of being able to step up into the Pocket. And it’s with that said, that the Titans have plummeted on this side of the football, ranking Thirtieth in both Points Scored (15.1) and Total Yards (300.2), with that aforementioned Passing Game weighing them down, checking in at next-to-last in Passing Attempts (28.1 A/G) and Passing Touchdowns (5), Thirtieth in Passing Yards (192.3 Y/G), and Twenty-Ninth in Net Yards per Attempt (5.5). Coincidentally, the woes in the trenches have also had an ill-effect on the Running Game, which was supposed to be the backbone of the Offense. The Titans have managed just 107.9 Yards per Game on the ground (19th Overall), which is low when consider that Mariota is one of the more dangerous dual-threat Quarterbacks in the league, with a dismal 3.9 Yards per Carry (26th Overall) sounding the alarm even more so. Former Heisman Tailback Derrick Henry (84 CAR, 273 YDS, 3.3 Y/C, 1 TD) has failed to establish himself as a force in the Backfield, averaging a career-low 3.3 Yards per Carry in 2018, with Free Agent Acquisition Dion Lewis (102 Touches, 476 YDS, 4.7 Y/T, 1 TD) earning the favor of the Coaching Staff due to his receiving acumen. With that said, they rebounded well after that catastrophe against Baltimore, narrowly falling defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers to the tune of 19-20 in London. Vrabel’s charges exhibited their resilience, rallying back from a 17-6 deficit in the Third Quarter to potentially tie the game Thirty-One Seconds left to play in the Fourth Quarter, though curiously opted to go for the Two-Point Conversion instead of sending the contest to Overtime, with Mariota’s pass to Tajae Sharpe falling to the turf. Fortunately, they would receive another opportunity after the Chargers were booked for Defensive Holding, but the result would not change, as another pass from Mariota failed to hit it’s mark, ending the contest.
Meanwhile, the Titans aren’t the only offensively-challenged team looking to turn things around coming off a Bye, for the Cowboys (3-4, 3rd in NFC East) are a virtual match for that description. In fact, in many ways Dallas could be confused for their opponent tonight. In addition to having an identical 3-4 record, Jason Garrett’s charges are trying to find their way with a young Quarterback struggling to move the football downfield in the Passing Game, with an underachieving Offensive Line failing to provide him with the expected comfort and luxury of a clean Pocket. That Quarterback would be Dak Prescott (62.1%, 202.4 Y/G, 5.60 NY/A, 8 TD, 4 INT, 52.4 QBR), now in his third season as the Starting Quarterback for “America’s Team”. Prescott rarely looks like the same Signal-Caller who earned the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, posting career-lows in Completion Percentage (62.1%) and Net Yards per Attempt (5.60), while already suffering Twenty-Three Sacks, leading to a miserable Sack Percentage of 10.0%. Basically, he’s getting dropped for a loss on one out of every ten drop-backs, folks. What used to be widely regarded as the finest Offensive Line in the league, has come crashing back to Earth, with All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith underperforming while dealing with nagging injuries, and fellow All-Pro Center Travis Frederick missing the entire season due to the effects of Guillain Barre Syndrome, which impacts his autoimmune system. When last we saw the Cowboys, their offensive woes came to a clear head in a 17-20 loss to their bitter rivals, the Washington Redskins two weeks ago; Prescott completed 22-of-35 Passes for 273 Yards and a Touchdown, but was sacked four times and lost a pair of Fumbles, while All-Pro Tailback Ezekiel Elliott (132 CAR, 619 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 3 TD) was relegated to just Thirty-Three Rushing Yards, the second-lowest output of his career. As a whole, Dallas rushed for just Seventy-Three Yards on Twenty-Two Attempts, their lowest figure of the season by a wide margin, which ultimately prompted Garrett to fire his Offensive Line Coach in an attempt to shake things up. Of course, it would help if there were anyone reliable to catch the football, for the Receiving Corps has been a glaring weakness for this team all season. It’s been covered at nauseum as to how Jerry Jones, Garrett, and Co. failed to adequately replace the presence of longtime veteran pass-catchers Dez Bryant (who was released in the Offseason) and Jason Witten (who is butchering every line on Monday Night Football), with the likes of Tavon Austin (7 REC, 130 YDS, 18.6 Y/R, 2 TD), Cole Beasley (33 REC, 350 YDS, 10.6 Y/R, 2 TD), Allen Hurns (13 REC, 158 YDS, 12.2 Y/R, 1 TD), and Deonte Thompson (12 REC, 103 YDS, 8.6 Y/R,) hardly inspiring confidence from their Quarterback. Thus far, the Passing Attack has been grounded to say the least, ranking Twenty-Ninth in Passing Attempts (29.4 A/G), Passing Yards (202.4 Y/G), and Third Down Percentage (31.9%), along with Twenty-Seventh in Passing Touchdowns (8), and Twenty-Eighth in Net Yards per Attempt (5.6). So how did Jones choose to solve this problem, you ask? By calling up Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders, that’s how! Last week, Dallas acquired former Raider’s Pro Bowl Receiver Amari Cooper (22 REC, 280 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 1 TD) for a First Round Pick in the 2019 Draft. While that may seem like a steep price to pay for a Receiver that has been very inconsistent for the past year and some change, if Cooper does in fact ignite this disappointing Passing Attack then it will have been well worth it. At 24 Years of Age, he’s still very young, and isn’t that far removed from back-to-back 1,000-Yard Seasons. Dallas is banking on a change of scenery making the difference for this kid, and with the NFC East still very much in their grasp, it could be a masterstroke from Jones when it’s all said and done.