Five things to watch for in Cowboys-Cardinals on 'MNF'

It's never too early to begin again, even when your invincibility has been shaken and your strengths have been exposed as weaknesses. So call this week's edition of Monday Night Football three and a half hours of soul-searching in the desert, because both the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals are looking for answers after their early-season setbacks.

This NFC matchup of 1-1 teams pits two franchises against one another that have both exceeded expectations with 13-3 seasons in the past two years, but have since fallen on hard times, brief or not.

In Arizona's first game, their everything on offense, David Johnson, went down with a devastating wrist injury, keeping him out for at least half the season. With no equivalent replacement at the position -- Johnson's dual-threat attributes know no equal throughout the league -- the Cardinals have had to rely on the aging Carson Palmer and a wide receiving corps paced by Larry Fitzgerald, both of whom are rumored to be playing out their final seasons in football. This wasn't the plan in Glendale, but it's now the reality.

The Cowboys haven't been bothered by injuries so much as by, depending who you ask, a lack of effort. Dallas' blowout loss to the Broncos last Sunday saw Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' run game shut down for the first time in his career, and then saw the back give up on a game-sealing interception. (I won't say "quit" because that'll irk Michael Irvin and Cowboys fanatics worldwide and be disastrous for my mentions.) Dallas still has the talent to take the NFC East and lay waste the conference, but now has to rebound from arguably its worst offensive performance of the Dak-Zeke era and yet another distraction.

Here are five things to watch for on Monday night when the Cowboys travel to Arizona to battle the Cardinals in prime time:

  1. Back in the saddle? The Broncos defense did a number on Dallas last week, relying on the No Fly Zone to lock down the Cowboys receivers with single coverage and stacking the box to stop Elliott from getting on a roll. The result? Elliott saw a stacked box on 77.8 percent of his carries and tallied just eight (!) rushing yards, while Prescott attempted a career-high 50 passes and threw two picks. Playing through the pass is not and will not be the Cowboys' strategy this season, so look for them to get back to their bread (Texas toast?) and butter against Arizona. But can the Cards replicate Denver's dominant display and force the Cowboys into an uncomfortable evening? Arizona boasts two of the top defensive backs in the league in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu and the Cards load the box more than the league average (45.8 percent -- 10th in league).
  1. Can Cards take flight? Depending on who you ask, Palmer has either lost five steps and is on his last legs or he's at the mercy of an unsure receiving corps forced to shoulder the load in David Johnson's absence. The jury's still out, but Monday presents a great opportunity for Palmer to right his season. Dallas' secondary is inexperienced and injury-riddled and coming off its worst showing of the young season, surrendering four touchdowns to Trevor Siemian's Broncos on mostly intermediate routes in Week 2. Palmer and the Cards put up over 300 passing yards on a similarly inexperienced secondary in Indianapolis, primarily through J.J. Nelson and Jaron Brown. If Arizona can use its passing game to control the game against Dallas and open up lanes for its backup runners, then the Cards have a chance to limit the Cowboys' time on the field and dictate the pace of play.
  1. Elliott's effort: After having his loyalty to the franchise called into question, all eyes will be on Zeke on Monday night. The Cowboys star tailback needs a bounce-back performance after a listless showing against Denver punctuated by his lapse in effort on a Broncos interception, something he admitted to earlier this week. With pressure building around Elliott -- remember that on-again, off-again suspension storyline? -- he needs to prove that last week was an aberration against a top-tier defense and that he is not heading toward a sophomore slump. History says he'll do just that against an Arizona defense that has surrendered an average of only 79 rushing yards through two games. Following eight sub-100-yard ground games, Elliott has averaged 105.5 rushing yards in the ensuing tilt.
  1. Texas takedowns: The focus of Dallas' offseason was to develop a pass rush, or as Jerry Jones colorfully put it, find a "war daddy" on the defensive line. So far, reviews are mixed. DeMarcus Lawrence has tallied a team-high 3.5 sacks in two games, second to only Calais Campbell (4) in the league. Unfortunately, first-round selection Taco Charlton has yet to make a meaningful impact on the other side of the line, recording just one tackle so far. The return of the suspended Damontre Moore should inject some life into the pass rush, but if Dallas can't get to the quarterback against a beleaguered Cardinals offensive line that will be without starting left tackle D.J. Humphries and could be missing left guard Mike Iupati, then the 'Boys are in trouble.
  1. Tight (end) coverage: Outside the hashes, the Dez Bryant vs. Patrick Peterson battle will be monitored, scrutinized and broken down on so many occasions that Jon Gruden will run out of euphemisms and telestrator ink. If you, the knowledgeable, curious football fan, are looking for other matchups or mismatches between the Dallas offense and Arizona defense, watch how the Cardinals try to cover Jason Witten. Last week, Arizona surrendered eight receptions for 79 yards on eight targets to Colts tight end Jack Doyle, three of which came on third down and none of which came against Mathieu. If Dallas gets stuck in third-and-long situations and Bryant and Peterson are tussling on the outside, look for Dak to find his bulky security blanket in the slot.
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