Five things to watch: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys

Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News
Lions fans cheer during the stunning victory over the Patriots.

The schedule game played in the offseason by NFL fans probably yielded many 1-2 starts for the Lions.

Sure, one might’ve expected Week 1 to look a lot like Week 3 and vice versa, considering the opponents, but Detroit is realistically where many expected at this point.

Now with winnable games against a floundering Dallas team and a wounded Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay visiting Ford Field before the bye week, the Lions have a chance to turn a tough five-game stretch to start the season into a success.

Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s matchup at Dallas (1 p.m., Fox/760):

1. Sharp shovel

Old friend Rod Marinelli still is strutting the sideline in Big D, serving as defensive coordinator for head coach Jason Garrett.

His defense has been better than the Cowboys' struggling offense this year, but should be without injured linebacker Sean Lee. The Cowboys went 0-5 without Lee last season.

The defense, which features former Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton and former Saginaw Valley State safety Jeff Heath (Lake Orion), has 11 sacks through three games, tied for second in the NFL.

More: View from the other side: Lions vs. Cowboys

More: Detroit News predictions: Lions vs. Cowboys

2. Another familiar face

The Dallas offense is run by coordinator Scott Linehan, who was Detroit’s offensive coordinator for five seasons from 2009-13.

Dak Prescott is struggling in his third season, as Dallas is 31st in passing yards through three games out of 32 NFL teams.

His weapons are limited after the retirement of tight end Jason Witten and the offseason release of wide receiver Dez Bryant. Nobody is emerging from the likes of Cole Beasley, Tavon Austin, Geoff Swaim, Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup to take the pressure off Ezekiel Elliott and the running game.

3. Zeroing in on Zeke

Despite a nice output of 127 yards on 16 carries last week against Seattle, Elliott blamed himself for the loss. 

Elliott had a fumble in the fourth quarter and a mental mistake on an illegal touch of a Prescott pass while out of bounds.

The calls are coming loudly from Dallas fans and media for Elliott to get the ball more. Expect the former Ohio State star to get at least 20 carries for the first time this season against the Lions run defense, still worst in the league with 5.4 yards allowed per run.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford needs to stay upright Sunday.

4. Keeping No. 9 upright

The last couple Lions seasons have unraveled in part because of an accumulation of injuries for quarterback Matthew Stafford after big hits.

After being in the bottom half of the league in sacks allowed for each of the past four seasons, the Lions have allowed a league-low three sacks this season.

For all the talk of the line leading Kerryon Johnson to the team’s first 100-yard game in almost five years, keeping Stafford upright is just as important.

More: To beat Cowboys, Lions must solve biggest weakness

5. Big D drama

The last few matchups with Dallas have produced memorable outcomes. 

The visiting Lions came from down 20-3 at halftime in 2011 to win after two Calvin Johnson fourth-quarter touchdown receptions from Stafford as part of a 5-0 start.

In 2013, Stafford drove the host Lions for a winning touchdown, faking he would spike the ball on the 1-yard line before instead putting it over the pile and past the goal line with 12 seconds remaining for a 31-30 win.

Then, there was the devastating 2015 playoff loss in Dallas and the 42-21 rout Dec. 26 which helped keep the 2016 Lions out of the postseason.

As T.O. would say, get your popcorn ready.

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer