(CBS DFW/CBS Local) – The Los Angeles Rams make their postseason debut this year on Saturday night, welcoming the Dallas Cowboys to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Rams will get a big boost from the expected return of running back Todd Gurley, who missed the final two games of the regular season with inflammation in his knee. Much of what the Rams do on offense centers around the bruising back’s ability to punish teams on the ground while also serving as a safe outlet for quarterback Jared Goff in the passing game.
For the Cowboys, the key will be keeping Gurley under wraps, as two of Los Angeles’ three losses this season came when the back was held under 100 total yards. That responsibility, according to CBS’ The NFL Today analyst Nate Burleson, will fall on linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. The duo combined for over 260 tackles this season and Burleson says they will be the deciding factor in whether Dallas wins or loses this game.
“In order for the Cowboys to win, the game will come down to Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith,” said Burleson in a phone interview on Tuesday. “If you want to look at a matchup and pay attention to two guys on every snap, pay attention to those two. They are going to be the reason the Cowboys win or fall short.”
For Burleson, this matchup reminds him of the game the Cowboys played against the Saints back in Week 13, when Dallas shut down a potent New Orleans offense in a 13-10 win. They did so by bottling up dynamic running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, holding the pair to just 100 combined yards. Vander Esch and Smith were all over the field in that game, combining for 19 tackles.
“The same thing applies in this game. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are going to have to focus on Todd Gurley,” said Burleson. “If they can void him out whenever he comes out for a screen or to run a route, that will change this game dramatically. Then, this Rams team becomes one dimensional and once they become one dimensional, the pressure is on Jared Goff. Even after the success of this year and last year, Goff is still a young pup in the postseason. That is where this game is going to be won. It will be up to the Cowboys linebackers.”
For the Rams, it will come down to their ability to slow down those linebackers. How Sean McVay and his staff scheme to force those two into decisions will be fascinating to watch for this weekend.