Clash of ti­tans

Matchup in trenches should be epic bat­tle

The Dallas Morning News - - Sportsday - DAVID MOORE [email protected]­las­news.com

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.’’

Paul Sancya/the As­so­ci­ated Press 1/2

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.

Tom Fox/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Wally Skalij/the Los An­ge­les Times

Rams de­fen­sive line­men Ndamukong Suh (93) and Aaron Don­ald (99) cel­e­brate a fum­ble re­cov­ery against the Vik­ings.

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