On Monday, I spent a fair amount of time wondering about how/why Tony Romo has looked like '07 Romo. Many of you have offered your theories and I will answer some of those in a soon-to-be-released mailbag. The most important thing is not why, the most important element of this run that could put the Cowboys in the mix for the 2009NFC Title run would be that he is playing very well right now. He has 1 interception in his last 4 games, and his last 2 games have been nearly perfect.
And when Tony Romo plays well, this team wins. In the last 2 weeks, he has had QB ratings of 113 and 140 and has not looked this good in a long time. Here is a stat for you:
When Tony Romo has a passer rating above 80, the Cowboys are 28-5, for 85%.
When he doesn't, they are 3-9 or 25%.
That is why people make such a big deal about how well he plays. And that is why Miles Austin has injected about as much optimism into the Cowboys offense as we have seen since the Julius Jones era.
Michael Signora is a statistical guru for the NFL, and I follow him on his twitter feed. This week, he had two jaw dropping tweets about Austin that I think you need to soak in:
1) - Miles Austin is 1 of 3 players in NFL history with 400+ receiving yards & 4+ TDs in 2-game span (Ochocinco, '06; Cloyce Box, '50)
2) - With 421 receiving yards in 1st 2 career starts, Miles Austin already has more yards than any player ever in their 1st 3 starts
Nobody is suggesting he can keep up his insane pace of nearly 24 yards a catch. But, if he can continue to demonstrate the ability to be a "go to" target for Romo in needed spots, and to attract coverage his way that indicates defenses will either respect him or pay the consequences, then there is no reason to believe that Romo cannot continue to hit that all important 80 QB rating every game.
Which brings us to this week's opponent, the 2-4 Seattle Seahawks. This is a team that has had some substantial amounts of talent in recent years, but they have likely been a victim of something the Cowboys fell victim of about a decade ago: Believing that their top level players had more of their prime left than they really did. For 5 straight seasons (2003-2007) The Seahawks dominated the NFC West under Mike Holmgren, and were in the playoffs. During that stretch they won 4 playoff games, and felt they were a bad call or two away from winning Super Bowl XL over Pittsburgh.
They were led by RB Shaun Alexander, QB Matt Hasselbeck, and LT Walter Jones. In 2009, the remains of that trio is the reason the Seahawks are where they are. Alexander is out of football as a reminder that the prime of a RB is over quickly as a possible victim of the curse of 370 (Remember his 11 carries with the Redskins last year?) Hasselbeck, now is now 34, and has missed 10 starts in the Seahawks last 20 games, and has only made 16 starts 3 times in his 11 year career. And Walter Jones has not played a down in 2009, and the Seahawks will try their 4th replacement for Jones. Walter Jones became Sean Locklear who turned into Brandon Frye and then Kyle Williams and now Damion McIntosh. All at left tackle in 6 games. Consider that next time you complain about Flozell.
In the preseason, The National Football Post rated the Seahawks talent like this:
BLUE CHIP: OT, W. Jones.
ALMOST BLUE: QB, Hasselbeck; DT, Mebane; ILB, Tatupu; CB, Trufant.
Without Hasselbeck for 3 starts, Jones for the entire season, Trufant has yet to play (will make his debut this week), and Lofa Tatupu is now gone for the year. You can see how the Seahawks are already looking ahead to the draft. If you have 5 players that the experts rank as remarkable, and 4 are not with you, your season is going to be rough.
Beyond that, the Seahawks have another weight on their neck, The issue of travel out of the Pacific:
Seattle has won only one of its past 10 games played outside the Pacific Time Zone. That poses kind of a problem because four of Seattle's next five games will require the Seahawks to adjust their watches.
Football coaches have control over a number of things in the 32 NFL fiefdoms. Geography, however, is not one of them and the travel schedule is simply a reality that comes with being the most isolated NFL franchise.
Six of Seattle's eight road games are to be played in the Eastern or Central time zones, which means those six games will start at 10 a.m. Pacific time, including Sunday's game in Dallas.
Is playing at 10am local time a big deal in the NFL? Or would the Seahawks be 1-9 in their last 10 road games regardless of where they played?
Seattle represents the 4th out of 8 home games for the Cowboys. With tough upcoming road dates with Philadelphia, New York, Green Bay, and New Orleans - 4 games in which the Cowboys will be underdogs, it is important that they win the games they should win at home. With the next 3 home games being a depleted Seattle, Washington, and Oakland (with San Diego and Philadelphia in December) it is important for the Cowboys to eat up these easier meals so that they are still in the mix when the holidays arrive.
In the last 2 weeks, the Redskins have lost twice, the Giants have lost twice, and the Eagles were 1-1. The entire division have done the Cowboys a great favor by going 1-5, with the only win coming when the Eagles beat the Redskins. Rarely, will an entire division offer you an invitation like the NFC East has for the Cowboys.
But, it all depends on taking care of this wounded Seahawks team before hitting the road for 2 difficult dates:
This week, the Cowboys take on a defense that has not had all of its parts available, but things improve somewhat on Sunday. Marcus Trufant will play some on Sunday, with reports out of Seattle indicating that he will likely fill the role of nickel back in Dallas. Meanwhile, Leroy Hill, their solid Outside LB will rejoin the team the same weak that the Middle LB, Tatupu has been lost for the year.
With the Seahawks, there has been some good as some not so good during 2009 on defense. They can get to the QB with a reasonable rate, led by Patrick Kearney grabbing 4 sacks in the last 4 games. They dominated the Rams and the Jaguars in Seattle for their 2 wins which were both blowouts. Otherwise, they are coming off a game where the Cardinals visited Seattle, and the Kurt Warner-Larry Fitzgerald show danced all over the Seahawks home turf.
1) - Run the Ball With Effectiveness - One thing that has dropped off from its incredible start is the Cowboys running of the football. They still average 5.6 yards per carry, but in Denver and then last week, they really had to work for their yardage. As the weather begins to turn, and the Cowboys begin to play on grass surfaces, they need to have their running game completely locked in. Last week, 28 carries for 115 yards was not horrible, but if you do not count Romo's yards, it was basically 22 carries for 84 yards for the RBs. Barber against Atlanta had 14 carries for 47 yards (3.4 avg). Since hurting himself in the Giants game, Barber missed the Carolina game altogether, and then has had the yards per carry of 3.7, 3.5, and 3.4 in his last 3 games. Getting Barber going is essential for November and December success. It seems like the biggest thing for the RBs these days is just making sure Barber and Felix are healthy.
2) - Pick up the Inside Blitzes - Speaking of things on the RBs minds, it seems that we are seeing a steady diet of inside blitzes. Blitzes come from to areas of the field - the edge (off tackles) and up the gut (Through the "A" gaps and "B" gaps). The Blitzes that have hurt the Cowboys have generally been through the Gaps around the centers and guards. I am sure the offense has spent plenty of time discussing it, and last week, they did a pretty good job. The problem is that the defense only has to get it right a few times to do damage to your QB and cause turnovers. I have been disappointed in the blitz recognition from Leonard Davis in particular up front and Tashard Choice at RB. These two were both on the scene for sacks against the Chiefs and Falcons because they did not recognize who was coming and who was not. In presnap, Romo attempts to identify the blitz with help from Andre Gurode, and you have to figure it out correctly. Inside LBs and Safeties have been the Achilles heel so far, and that needs to be sorted out. It will be interesting to see if we see improvement on this front.
3) - Jason Witten down the Seam - If you have been following along with our study of target distribution , you know that Jason Witten has caught an incredible 33 of the 40 passes intended for him this season - and 8 for 8 on 3rd down situations. The numbers have been steady from game to game, but he has sort of seemed to be lost in the game plan for big chunks recently. I think the emergence of Austin will open things up further for him and the mystery TE, Martellus Bennett for some big gainers down the seam. When that happens, this offense should be unstoppable.
4) - Patience, Patience, Patience - Part of beating a team that you should beat is to be patient and methodical in your plan. Don't get antsy (as Garrett will do) and take unnecessary chances early on. That can backfire, and before long you have allowed an inferior opponent to hang around. I think a steady dose of cranking up that diesel running game and mashing the Seahawks into a fine powder is the recipe for success. Lots of "22" and "13" personnel power running. This is what the Cowboys do well, and this is what they need to continue to do against the better teams down the stretch.
Defensively, we finally saw things come together last Sunday against a decent Atlanta offense. The Cowboys allowed only 298 yards of offense and combined that with 3 big takeaways. This is the story of success for the Cowboys - when they get multiple takeaways, they seldom lose.
If there is a problem that we have seen through 6 games for this defense, it is that opposing QBs are averaging a QB rating of 90 against Dallas. The Giants allow their opponents a 78 rating, and the Eagles a 70. That stat will not get it done for Dallas, as they have really only troubled Jake Delhomme and Matt Ryan. Others, like Byron Leftwich and Kyle Orton had very strong passing performances. I think we all know that a pressure is important, and we can only hope that Wade Phillips and his staff is determined to bring the blitz at the proper times to help a defensive line that is slowly but surely coming around.
One thing they have done well is 3rd down defense. Allowing only 25 conversions in 75 attempts for their opponents, we can say the Cowboys have been able to get off the field. Only 5 teams have done better so far this year than the Cowboys (Denver, NYG, Arizona, Phil, and New Orleans). This might be the most important defensive stat in football (after takeaways), so let's keep an eye on that one.
1) - Test those cracked ribs - Matt Hasselbeck is hurting. He doesn't take part in practices much, and he looks like he tries to carry on in pain. He also is playing behind an offensive line that has very little going for it right now. There are huge issues with the Seattle OL due to health, and they are in a position where they often go max-protect (7-8 man protection schemes) to buy him time. This should make the job easier on the secondary as a whole, but it will offer interesting choices for Wade on when to blitz and how many to bring. Seattle starts their offense by protecting and if that fails (as it did against Arizona) they have no chance.
2) - The secondary must be ready for multiple threats - Despite all manner of chaos in the passing game, the Seahawks have 2 WRs with 30+ catches in Nate Burleson (32) and TJ Houshmandzadeh (31). This is actually quite remarkable given that Seneca Wallace started 3 games and could get nothing going. Both Burleson and TJ are capable of big plays, and TJ has stated that he needs to be a bigger part of the offense. There are very few off-weeks for the secondary in this league, and this won't be one of them for Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins. Jenkins is coming off a week that everyone has called the best of his pro career, so let's see if he can build on it against a very capable passing offense. John Carlson has had 24 catches from the TE position as a young and promising pass-catching TE for the Seahawks. He is not Tony Gonzalez, but he can make you pay if you forget him.
3) - Be Mindful of Forsett - In watching the Seahawks last several games, I am convinced Julius Jones and Edgerrin James is about as weak a RB tandem as you might see all year. Jones still falls at first contact and rarely makes anyone miss. James is just done, and shows very little burst at all. But, Justin Forsett, the former California Golden Bear from the DeSean Jackson era, looks like he offers burst and quickness as a return man and a 3rd down back. He has yet to do much, but since the Seahawks are coming off a bye week, if I were to guess what new wrinkle they might show, it might be to feature Forsett a little more in the 2nd half of their season to find out if he might provide them something from the RB position. But, truth be told, they really need a feature back in the offseason.
4) - Keep the Takeaway Game Going - With 3 takeaways last week, some of us may think the Cowboys are starting to get rolling in that category. Guess again. With 7 for the season, they are still dead last in the NFL (tied with Carolina and Washington). If you want to run with the big dogs, just know that Philadelphia and New Orleans have 18 takeaways a piece. Progress has been made, but there is so much room to go. Must. Get. Turnovers.
SUMMARY: This is a game that is not optional. The Cowboys must prove they can handle success and win the easier games on their slate. Coming off the KC close-call, I would hope that they are not putting this game into the win column prematurely.
This is a wounded Seattle team, but they are coming off a "bye" week. They should be relatively fresh and ready to roll. A win could get the Seahawks back into their divisional mix, and you will get their best effort.
That shouldn't be enough, though, and the Cowboys should be able to dismantle this team in the 2nd half and win by double digits.
Cowboys 27, Seattle 17
Atlanta Falcons Game Plan
Kansas City Game Plan
Denver Game Plan
Carolina Game Plan
Giants Game Plan
Tampa Bay Game Plan