(CBSNY/CBS Local) — The New York Jets probably aren’t looking forward to facing another NFC East opponent after the beating they took from the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. That is, unless that team shares their home stadium or hails from our nation’s capital and just fired their head coach. No such luck for Adam Gase and company. The Jets, still looking to win their first game of the season, will host the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday.
The Cowboys enter the matchup somewhat humbled themselves after losing their second in a row. Dallas started the season 3-0, with cakewalk wins over the Giants, Redskins and Miami Dolphins. Things were looking good in Big D, with the offense running up 30-plus-point totals against bad defenses. Then the better-than-expected New Orleans Saints shut them down, and the Green Bay Packers warded off their late comeback.
The Cowboys are still tied with the Eagles for the division lead. The Jets, let’s just say, are not. Though there is good news in Jets Nation. Starting quarterback Sam Darnold, who has been out with mononucleosis since after Week 1, will return to the lineup in Week 6. He won’t have much company; tight end Chris Herndon, one of Darnold’s go-to targets last season, remains out after his suspension with a pulled hamstring.
Darnold starting won’t put this listing ship on course for the playoffs — the Jets have their fair share of other issues — but his presence will steady it. He is their leader, after all, not a third-stringer, elevated from the practice squad to the starting lineup, like Luke Falk. His offense will put up more than one touchdown per 12 quarters.
Still, as NFL On CBS lead sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson notes, “it takes some time, and this is a big challenge with the Cowboys coming in. But when you get someone like that back, sometimes that is the spark that you need.” Let’s also keep in mind that Darnold will be playing behind an offensive line that has yielded a league-leading 23 sacks in only four games. He may take some shots.
With Darnold under center, everyone in the entire stadium won’t just assume Le’Veon Bell is getting the ball. Bell has averaged 24-plus touches per game so far, which is close to 40% of the team’s plays from scrimmage. Darnold will look to get Demaryius Thomas, Robby Anderson and Jamison Crowder — the team’s trio of receivers — more involved in the passing game.
The Cowboys defense hasn’t been a huge threat to get to the quarterback, with only 12 sacks in five games. Nor has their defensive backfield played particularly well, generating just one interception and 24 passes defensed so far. All that said, the last quarterback to surpass 300 yards passing in a game was the since-deposed Eli Manning in Week 1. Even Aaron Rodgers was held to just 238 yards and no touchdowns.
Rodgers had plenty help on the ground in the Packers’ win; Aaron Jones racked up 107 yards and four touchdowns. “Their run defense was just atrocious last week, as we saw against the Packers,” in Wolfson’s view. “The Cowboys defense certainly has something to prove.” Before the Packers debacle, the Cowboys had held the opposing ground game mostly in check. The Giants’ Saquon Barkley earned the only other 100-plus-yard game against them in Week 1.
On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys running game tends to be the engine that drives the offense. Ezekiel Elliott, last season’s rushing champion, has struggled at times this season. His only two 100-yard games so far came against the Redskins and Dolphins, both teams that rank among the five worst against the run. The offensive line deserves its fair share of the blame.
“One of the strengths for Dallas over the years has been their offensive line,” notes Wolfson, “and they are extremely banged up there. They’re not playing to their potential in that phase of the game, and it is certainly hurting the team and Dak Prescott.”
The effects of the Cowboys’ inability to get going on the ground cascade through the rest of the offense. Prescott threw for an absurd 463 yards against the Packers, but he also threw three interceptions. The defense knew what was coming, even if they couldn’t corral receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Playing from behind certainly didn’t help.
The Cowboys offense will be looking to run on a Jets defense that has mostly held its own. It’s only giving up 87.5 rushing yards per game, an average right in line with the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and some of the league’s better defenses.
“I think the defense has been playing with some heart,” says Wolfson. “If they can just find some consistency on offense, if they can just do something, offensively to put some drives together, they’ll have a shot.”
The Jets are seven-point underdogs at home. “I think this game is going to be closer than people think,” said Wolfson. “Dallas and the Jets both have something to prove.”
The Cowboys face the Jets Sunday @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.