Bob Wojnowski and Justin Rogers discuss the Lions' upcoming game with the Cowboys and what a win could win for the NFC North race. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Lions at Cowboys
Kickoff: 1 Sunday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: Lions 1-2, Cowboys 1-2
Line: Cowboys by 3
View from the other side
Jon Machota covers the Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News. He breaks down the Lions' upcoming opponent for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Sunday’s game. You can follow him on Twitter @jonmachota.
Question: Two years ago, Dallas' offensive line was the talk of football. How much is Travis Frederick's absence hindering the group's current performance?
Machota: It has set them back to the point where they are no longer considered the NFL’s best offensive line. And that’s a huge problem, considering Jason Garrett and the Cowboys front office have built everything around having a dominant offensive line. It’s so important to their success that they planned to go into this season with a first-round talent at all five positions.
Losing Frederick, arguably the league’s best center, has been noticeable. Joe Looney has been solid as his replacement, but he’s not Frederick, who has been outstanding in not only his play but his ability to diagnose defenses pre-snap and get his teammates in the right spots. Dak Prescott clearly hasn’t been as comfortable in the pocket and his play has suffered because of it. Once they get Frederick back healthy, which no one knows when that will be, they have a chance of again being one of the league’s best.
More: Lions' Ameer Abdullah doesn't let demotion get him down
Question: The defense is holding opponents under 18 points per game, despite not forcing many turnovers. Is this more reflective of the opponents the Cowboys have played or is the unit actually really good?
Machota: This is the best defense they’ve had since former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli joined Dallas’ staff in 2013. The Cowboys have used several premium draft picks over the last five years on defenders and it’s finally starting to pay off.
DeMarcus Lawrence has become one of the game’s best pass rushers. Everything starts with his pressure up front. The back end has really been helped by the addition of defensive backs coach Kris Richard, Seattle’s former defensive coordinator. Although Marinelli is Dallas’ coordinator, Richard is the one calling the defense. He has brought that Seahawks mentality on the back end, which has been evident in better corner play from Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie, and more blitzing from the safeties and linebackers. The only thing they are missing are the interceptions, which has been a problem for a while in Dallas. Since 2015, the Cowboys have intercepted only 27 passes, worst in the league.
Question: How much of Dak Prescott's declining performance since his rookie year, and especially his start to the 2018 season, can be attributed to the weapons around him?
Machota: It’s certainly part of the problem. But so is the offensive line play, the play-calling and his own accuracy issues and decision-making. The Cowboys needed to add better playmakers after Dez Bryant was released and Jason Witten retired. But they decided to go with more of a committee approach at receiver and tight end and it’s been painful to watch for most of this season.
Prescott hasn’t been very good, but the players around him haven’t been much better. It seems pretty obvious at this point that receiver and tight end have to be at the top of Dallas’ 2019 draft board. Cole Beasley has been the team’s No. 1 receiver and Tavon Austin has made the most big plays, but they don’t have a consistent outside threat to stretch the field and scare opposing defenses.
Question: Assuming the reports are accurate, how equipped is the defense to overcome Sean Lee being out of the lineup?
Machota: I don’t see Lee playing in this game. This appears to be the type of injury that will keep him out multiple weeks. It’s the same hamstring that caused him to miss time last year. Since 2015, the Cowboys are 1-7 when Lee doesn’t play. They are better equipped than in previous seasons, considering rookie Leighton Vander Esch has played well in his limited time and Jaylon Smith continues to improve since suffering that severe knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame. But neither is Lee. Everything runs smoother when Lee is out there. Not only does it seem like he knows where every play is going, he’s the vocal leader on the field.
Question: Dallas wins this game if?
Machota: If they can get anything going in the passing game. They should be able to run the ball against Detroit, but Prescott and his receivers need to have some success down the field. The Cowboys are at their best when they get an early lead and lean on their running game to keep it. If Prescott is able to get anything going early, like he did in their home opener against the Giants, the Cowboys will lean on Ezekiel Elliott to do the rest.
Score prediction: Lions 20, Cowboys 17
Three Cowboys to watch
Running back Ezekiel Elliott: This matchup is everything. Elliott is one of the league's best backs. His 5.7 yards per carry are video game-esque. Plus, his ability to run outside his tackles might be Detroit's biggest defensive weakness. If the Lions can't bottle him up and limit the damage, it could be a long day in Dallas.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch: Sean Lee is one of the league's most cerebral linebackers, but he won't play this week, sidelined by a hamstring injury. The rookie Vander Esch figures to get the bulk of the workload, and through the first three games, the former BYU standout looks like a good one.
Quarterback Dak Prescott: You could probably put the quarterback on this list every week, but Prescott's struggles are a big part of the Cowboys' struggles. He can't seem to top 200 yards passing, which isn't surprising given the weapons he has around him following the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.