Clash of titans
Matchup in trenches should be epic battle
FRISCO — A clash of offensive styles is one element that captures interest.
Another is the duel between Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.
There’s no shortage of intriguing matchups for Saturday’s divisional game between the Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams. When putting that list together, don’t ignore Zack Martin and Aaron Donald.
These two won’t be across from each other on every play. The Rams star usually lines up over the left guard to rush the quarterback on third down.
Sorry, Connor Williams. But Martin and Donald are Pro Bowl fixtures who
set the tone for their teams in the trenches. Their dominance will help determine the outcome.
Keeping Donald in check is line one — as head coach Jason Garrett likes to say — for the Cowboys. The Rams defensive tackle led the NFL with 201/2 sacks and was credited with 41 quarterback hurries.
Martin, Williams and whoever else Donald lines up against will have their hands full.
“I just think he’s a combination of everything that is good at D-tackle,’’ Martin said. “You know, a lot of times you play against a good D-tackle, they are really strong but they may not be as quick so you can kind of focus on one thing whereas he’s pretty much everything.
“You have to have extremely good technique and stick to your fundamentals. It turns into really a battle because he’s very talented and has so many moves and power.’’
Williams was the team’s starting left guard for the first eight games. A knee injury knocked him out of the lineup for a few games and when he returned veteran Xavier Su’a-filo had taken his job. The rookie started two games at right guard for an injured Martin late in the season then moved back to start at left guard for an injured Su’a-filo against Seattle in the wild-card round.
It appears Williams will start against the Rams. What are his thoughts on facing Donald?
“He’s a good player and I definitely respect him,’’ Williams said in a response that for him, qualifies as a soliloquy.
Martin refers to Donald as “a game wrecker.’’ In LA’S base defense, he lines up on both sides but usually settles at left guard on third down.
“I don’t know if that’s because he likes it over there more or what,’’ Martin said. “He does that vs. everyone so that’s not something new for us.
“We’re going to have to be aware of where he’s at.’’
Donald isn’t the only player to move around in the 3-4 defense of coordinator Wade Phillips. Nose tackle Ndamukong Suh will wind up at end on some downs instead of Michael Brockers.
Both men are a load. Suh was arguably the league’s dominant defensive tackle before Donald took over that title.
“Donald gets a lot of credit, which he deserves every single bit of it,’’ Martin said. “People forget that there’s other guys on that D-line that are pretty talented, pretty good.
“It’s not just him.’’
The Rams are built to put pressure on the quarterback. But that emphasis can make them susceptible to the run.
Los Angeles allowed an average of 122.3 yards on the ground to rank No. 23 in the league during the regular season. The defense gave up 17 runs of 20 or more yards and allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards a carry.
Seattle is built along the same offensive lines as Dallas. The Seahawks gained 190 and 273 yards on the ground in its two games against the Rams.
This is where Phillips is likely to counter that the Rams won both of those games.
“The teams that have been successful have done the little things right, they’ve hit some big runs against them,’’ Martin said. “At the same time, you can’t look at that stat and think it’s going to be easy sledding running the ball. That’s just not how it goes.
“We’ve got to go out there and execute and hopefully we’ll be successful.’’
Martin will be making his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. He remains in the argument for the league’s best guard.
But this has been his most challenging season. Martin played with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee for a significant
portion of the season. He aggravated the injury in the second half of the win over Philadelphia on Dec. 9 and was unable to return.
Martin saw his streak of 77 consecutive starts end against Indianapolis in Week 15. He missed two of the team’s final three regularseason games but was back on the field against the Seahawks.
For much of the season, he just hasn’t felt right.
“My first four years I never really had anything,’’ Martin said. “I had bumps and bruises, but not anything I really had to worry about. I think the trainers, we’ve done a good job of having a plan and sticking to it, doing everything I can to be as healthy as possible
“It’s part of the game. I’ve been lucky, knock on wood, not to have anything super serious. So it’s just things that guys go through every year.”
The duel between Elliott and Gurley? Martin and Donald will both have a say in who wins that battle.
“Both teams like to run the ball,’’ Martin said. “Obviously both offenses are better when they do run the ball successfully. It’s no surprise we’re going to try to run it and it’s no surprise they’re going to try to run it.
“It’s just whoever executes better.’’
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99), tackling Lions running back Legarrette Blount, will be a handful for whomever he lines up over on the Cowboys offensive line. Donald led the NFL with 20 sacks.
Zack Martin (70) has protected quarterback Dak Prescott for much of the season with a sprained left knee. He said he and the Cowboys training staff have done everything they can to get him as healthy as possible.
Rams defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh (93) and Aaron Donald (99) celebrate a fumble recovery against the Vikings.