Matchup to Watch

Matchup to Watch: Browns pass defense vs. Cowboys top-ranked passing attack

The Browns are flying high at 2-1 after defeating the Washington Football Team, 34-20, in Week 3, thanks in large part to an impressive defensive performance that produced five turnovers. The Browns pass defense produced three interceptions in that game, their first interceptions of the season, and will look to keep that momentum going in an incredibly difficult matchup against the aerial assault of the Dallas Cowboys, which is producing a league-best 396 yards passing per game (sack yardage not included).  

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has thrown for 1,188 yards through three weeks and is on pace for 6,336, which would be almost 1,000 yards more than the NFL record for most passing yards in a single season (5,477). Prescott's 396 yards per game are 50 yards more per game than the No. 2 passer in the NFL, Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills. For comparison's sake, Baker Mayfield is averaging 188 yards passing per game, but it should be noted that Prescott has more completions (96) than Mayfield has passing attempts (85) through three games. 

Prescott is completing 67.1 percent of his passes and is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, tied for eighth-best in the NFL, so it is not just his volume that is impressive. It is also his efficiency. Prescott is working with arguably the best wide receiver trio in the NFL as Amari Cooper (267 yards, eighth), Michael Gallup (246 yards, 13th) and CeeDee Lamb (230 yards, 16th) all rank in the Top 16 in receiving yards through three weeks. In other words, the Browns' pass defense will have its hands full in Week 4 and must rise to the challenge.

The good news is that the Browns will hopefully be healthier Sunday, as the team hopes to have Denzel Ward (groin), Greedy Williams (shoulder), Kevin Johnson and Terrance Mitchell all available for the first time in the 2020 season. That will be key given the Browns have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 64 percent of their passes for 275 yards, 2.67 touchdowns and one interception per game this season. One thing that must be noted, however, is that the Browns are only surrendering 6.6 yards per attempt in 2020, which is tied for fifth-best in the NFL. 

The Browns have done a good job of not allowing many big plays through the air this year, but that will be tested by Prescott and the Cowboys. On true deep passes of more than 20 yards in the air, Prescott has nine completions and 350 yards passing, both of which are second-most in the NFL. In terms of big passing plays, regardless of air yards, the Cowboys have already completed 18 passes for more than 20 yards and five passes for more than 40 yards, both tops in the NFL. The Browns have allowed nine passes of more than 20 yards and just one pass play of 40 yards, which rank 13th and sixth best in the NFL, respectively.

For all the focus on the back-end of the defense, the real key to stopping the Dallas aerial attack might rest with the Browns pass rush. From a clean pocket, Prescott is completing 76 percent of his passes for 943 yards (8.9 yards per attempt), five touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 117.8. When under pressure, however, Prescott becomes pedestrian, completing only 43 percent of his passes for 245 yards (6.6 yards per attempt), zero touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 43.2. His completion percentage and quarterback rating under pressure rank 25th and 29th in the NFL, respectively. It has to be noted that this pressure must come organically and not via the blitz. The front four has to get home because Prescott has shredded the blitz to the tune of 10 yards per attempt and a quarterback rating of 110.7 so far in 2020.  

A healthy secondary combined with a dominant pass rush led by Myles Garrett will have to be at the top of their games on Sunday to stifle the explosive Dallas passing game, but the path to success definitely exists.

Cleveland's defense dominated quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Washington's offense with a 34-20 win that featured five turnovers — three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. All of them came at crucial times for the Browns, who generated points on four of the drives created by the turnovers and rode the defense for a fourth-quarter comeback.

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