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Rams vs. Cowboys matchup: Will three-headed running game work for Sean McVay?

Rams running backs Cam Akers, right, and Darrell Henderson stretch during training camp in Thousand Oaks.
Rams running backs Cam Akers, right, and Darrell Henderson stretch during training camp Aug. 18 in Thousand Oaks.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Breaking down how the Rams (9-7 last season) and Dallas Cowboys (8-8 last season) match up heading into Sunday night’s season-opening game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood:

When Rams have the ball

Get ready for the start of the post-Todd Gurley era. After releasing their star running back — and centerpiece of the offense — the Rams will rely on Malcolm Brown, Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson. Quarterback Jared Goff has referred to the combo as “a three-headed monster.” The question: Will the triumvirate strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators? Goff begins his fifth season looking to rebound from a subpar 2019, when he passed for 22 touchdowns, with a career-worst 16 interceptions. He needs a sound rushing attack to create play-action opportunities. Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds are the starting receivers, and rookie Van Jefferson is expected to play a large rotational role. Coach Sean McVay is expected to deploy tight ends Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Johnny Mundt and possibly rookie Brycen Hopkins in multiple formations. Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth anchors the offensive line. The Cowboys, under new coach Mike McCarthy, also have a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan. End DeMarcus Lawrence anchors the line with Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Aldon Smith the linebackers in the 4-3 scheme.

When Cowboys have the ball

Owner-general manager Jerry Jones hired McCarthy to replace Jason Garrett, but offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was retained after directing a unit that ranked first in yards per game and sixth in scoring. Quarterback Dak Prescott is on another salary drive — and that’s not a good thing for opponents. Last season, he passed for 30 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. After failing to agree to terms with the Cowboys on a long-term deal, he is playing on an exclusive franchise tender worth $31.4 million. Ezekiel Elliott was the league’s second-leading rusher last season, and Tony Pollard rushed for 131 yards against the Rams. Former Rams running backs coach Skip Peete now oversees that position group. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie CeeDee Lamb provide Prescott with game-breaking targets. Left tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin lead what has annually been one of the NFL’s top lines. Joe Looney replaces perennial Pro Bowl center selection Travis Frederick, who retired. Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley will be calling his first NFL game. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey are the highly paid stars of what is expected to be a hybrid 3-4 scheme, with Ramsey deployed in multiple ways.

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When they kick

Former Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein signed a free-agent contract with Dallas, reuniting with former Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel. Rookie Samuel Sloman, a seventh-round draft pick who played at Miami of Ohio, beat out two other kickers for the opportunity to replace Zuerlein.

The NFL is monitoring air quality from wildfires in California ahead of Sunday’s scheduled game between the Rams and Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium.

Gary Klein’s prediction

If fans were allowed in SoFi Stadium, the Rams might have a home-field advantage. But that is not the case for a team playing a new defensive scheme for the first time. Zuerlein once kicked seven field goals for the Rams in a victory over the Cowboys. He no doubt would like to do the same against his former team.

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COWBOYS 30, RAMS 27


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