Every week is a soap opera in the Cowboys world, and this week is no different as talks continue about how Jason Garrett does his job and what tools he uses to accomplish his goals. Yesterday, The media gathered to question him about his Felix Jones feelings and predictably got nowhere. The toy box is certainly full for Tony Romo and the coaching staff, but they have to remain simple and on point to get the efficiency they need to win games. The game plan against Houston has many of us optimistic that they may have finally figured things out a bit. The Division has cooperated, but now the Cowboys need to get on a run.
This week, they face an opponent that both routinely spanks the NFC, and that is defending its reputation against charges of being dirty and undisciplined. Tennessee leads the league in penalties accepted (37) and penalty yardage against (344). They fly to the ball and fight you for every inch. Having lost most of the names that we became familiar with on their defense, it is now a defense that buys into the team mission statement of what Titans' football is all about.
The strength of the Titans defense is two-fold. First, they have a defensive line that rolls over similar players who seem to have great motors and intensity. No single member of the current ensemble seems to mount a serious personal resume that impresses, but as a group they just keep rolling them over and coming at you. Dave Ball leads them with 4.5 sacks in 4 games. To call that fun fact a surprise is an understatement. He played 47 games in his career prior to this year and had 4.5 sacks total. But as a unit, 16 team sacks in 4 games is formidable and something to be taken seriously. And Jacob Ford returns from a few weeks of injury to give the group a real boost.
Their second strength is their secondary. Cortland Finnegan is the big playmaker, and a pair of reasonable safeties, Texas Longhorn Michael Griffin and Chris Hope hold down the deep center. This group allows plenty of aggressive scheming up front with blitzing and creative fronts. They have a rookie CB starting on Romo's left side, Alterraun Verner 4th Rounder from UCLA, but he showed up pretty well in his first start against Denver and is more than capable in run support.
1) - Keep Titans Off Balance with Run/Pass uncertainty - If you read my material with any regularity, then this might be a tired theme. I am sorry, but I cannot help it. In Houston, the Cowboys finally looked like their offense had a rhythm. They passed from running formations and ran from passing formations. They had run/pass options and basically played the Texans' safeties like a top. When the Cowboys are rolling - and Jason Garrett is having his way - the Cowboys have a perfect blend of personnel that can do either. True "jokers" in that the Tight Ends could be run blockers or pass catchers and you don't know what you are going to get by looking at groupings or formations. It is a delicate balance, but when it works, there is no more dangerous offense in football. When the Cowboys are predictable, they are not successful. But, they showed in a tough situation that they have plenty of firepower and creativity. They just have to consistently win the strategy battle. This will be a key early in the game on Sunday for setting a tone.
2) - Beware of the Blitz - Tennessee leads the NFL with 16 sacks (tied with Green Bay and New York Giants) but nobody can name who their best pass rushers are (at least nobody who hasn't looked it up). The fact is, Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch are long gone. They do their damage with the blitz, and the league has the 31st best passer rating against the Titans blitz in 2010. Meanwhile, the Average Team in the NFL has given up 8 sacks so far this season. The Chicago Bears have been sacked 18 times (although the Cowboys only got Cutler once). And yet Dallas has only allowed 1 sack this season. It is a remarkable number and one that the team should be quite proud of given the fact that they have faced Brian Orakpo, Julius Peppers, and Mario Williams in successive weeks. But, can it continue? It will help to not be in 3rd and long on a regular basis.
3) - Crank Up that "12" and "22" - I think we have seen enough of the Jason Garrett offense to know that with this personnel, the Cowboys do their biggest damage out of 2 TE formations. Then, This week we studied that all of Felix Jones home runs came from 2 TE formations . I think it is time to reestablish what we learned in 2009. Now, that mission statement has been adjusted because if you put 2 TEs on the field then you most certainly will not have 3 WRs out there, too. You only have about 60 plays and you have to make a priority. So, the clear choice is this - Shotgun w/ 3 WR or under center with the pass/run threat that stresses the safeties into making a choice to pick their poison. I would like to remind anyone who will listen that the Cowboys have never demonstrated great success with Shotgun/3 WRs and slinging it around like Brees, Brady, or Manning. The Cowboys must play to their strengths and their proven successes. This means Romo under center on 1st and 2nd Down and taking what is given. Lots of 82 and 80 showing their versatility and causing defensive uncertainty. Play to your strength!
4) - No Charity Chances - The Titans take the ball way plenty (7)- and give the ball away plenty more (10). They are a team that will not surrender many 80 yard drives and will not accumulate many, either. The profile of the Titans is one that requires big plays. A kickoff return here, an interception there, and a 70 yard Chris Johnson Home Run. If the Cowboys can play a clean game offensively, then they should be able to win this game in a straight-up fashion. Where Dallas can get into trouble on Sunday is being careless or by not picking up the blitz on a regular basis. When you get a team on your home-field that you feel your are better than, you owe it to yourself to make it a game without huge game changers. The offense and Romo must emphasize that a punt is better than a giveaway and to not get too cute and risk a game-swinging play.
In a league where we learn every Sunday that a win is all that matters, the offense should not worry about style points and highlight films to appease their demanding fans. Grind out a vital result and continue in your rhythm. Stay focused and simplistic in your game plan and eliminate mistakes. Control 1st Down and the rest will come on Sunday. This should be game that the Cowboys win without too many fingernails being sacrificed.