ON OFFENSE: While you may have the option of allowing the World Series run of the Rangers to distract you from the impending doom of your Dallas Cowboys, I can assure you that the Dallas Coaching Staff have not been afforded that luxury. Jason Garrett and his coaches are trying to find a way to make sure what happened in 2008 doesn't happen again with this offense because in the 3 game stretch in 2008 without Tony Romo, the offense managed 232 yards per game. In the games with Romo in 2008, the Cowboys sat at 370 yards per game. So, with everything else the same, the Cowboys dropped from the ranks of the average offenses in the NFL to the absolute worst.
So, this week, the object of the game is to simply construct a game plan around what Jon Kitna does well. Since he is now 38 years old and since he has not really played meaningful football since 2007, we are going to depend on the ability of the coaches to evaluate what he has shown in practice to construct these ideas.
But, unlike Tampa Bay coming to town with Monte Kiffin's vaunted unit for Brad Johnson in 2008, the Jacksonville defense is very much the test you would love to start out with. Jacksonville's defense is just not very good.
No team has allowed more points than the Jacksonville Jaguars defense (202).
No team has allowed more touchdowns than the Jacksonville Jaguars defense (26).
Only 1 team allows more 3rd Down conversions than Jacksonville (46.8% success).
No team allows more 20 yard passes (28).
No team allows more yards per snap (6.41).
31st in 10+ yards plays allowed.
32nd in 20+ yard plays allowed.
32nd in opponents passer rating allowed (113).
And so on, and so forth.
Jacksonville is a bad defense by pretty much all metrics. It would be difficult for Jason Garrett to hand pick a more reasonable way to launch the Jon Kitna era than with a home game against a defense that has offered minimal resistance to its foes.
So, let's detail how this can be accomplished.
1) - Balance Up the Offense - When Tony Romo is your QB, there is a chance that you want to run an out of balance offense because you believe the object of the game is to score points and win - not run a 50/50 offense. But the Cowboys have, through 6 games, lost 5 and had the most out of balance offense in the NFL besides the Detroit Lions (also, 1-5). The 34%/66% run/pass split shows a team that cannot run the football and doesn't find it very important. That is right, with the millions spent on RT, RG, C, LG, LT, TE, FB, and TB, this team is telling us that they cannot run the football. After watching them ground and pound last year with the best in the league, I never saw this coming. But, now, there is a simple strategic objective in balancing up the offense. It is to give your passing game a chance to succeed. With no run threat on the early downs (Cowboys run plays called on 1st down are the lowest in the NFL) there is no reason for the defense to concern itself with anything other than pass rush and coverage. Confusing blitzes and exotic coverages to make sure that Miles, Dez, and Roy find no space. Without a balanced offense, there is little chance to have a prolific passing game unless you have a special QB. Tony Romo is that guy some Sundays. But, Jon Kitna has never been that guy. 46-69 as a starter, and has not had a winning record as a starter since 1999. 1999. the year Dez Bryant turned 11 years old. He has limited mobility and he is thought to have a limited arm. The only way that he can find success is for the Cowboys to run the football with some modicum of success as well. If you can get the LBs and Safeties thinking run, then you may have a chance to give Kitna a moment to find something. Otherwise, he may be tossed around by Aaron Kampman and his friends.
2) - Protect Phil Costa to Protect Kitna - I was trying to learn more about Phil Costa - the man who will start at Left Guard this week - and found his pre-draft bio online. Here it is: A converted guard, Costa spent his senior season at Maryland playing center, where he started all 12 games and played nearly every snap for a team that won only twice and had plenty of problems on offense. In 2009, the Terps were tied for 105th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks allowed with 36 and ranked 106th in rushing offense with an average of 105.8 yards per game. Costa has decent size and strength, but doesn't have a particular skill he can perform better than the other centers in this draft class. He wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine and isn't perceived as one of the elite centers, meaning he is a longshot to be selected. Yikes. I am sure the Cowboys personnel department doesn't draft guys based on bios that they google, but that hardly gives me great confidence. Anyway, Based on Barry Cofield's sack past Costa on Monday, I suggest the Cowboys will be sliding protection in his direction. Jacksonville has some strong interior line play led by rookie Tyson Alualu (a player the Cowboys had targeted in the draft) and Terrance Knighton, and they will be trying to stunt and blitz to isolate him on their way to Kitna. Help the young man.
3) - Treat the Jaguars Defense Like Everyone Else Does - I believe Sunday calls for a rather uptempo game plan with plenty of max-protect shots down the field. Jon Kitna will provide competitiveness and fire, anyone who knows the guy will tell you that much, so it is possible that the Cowboys can inspire their fans to get behind them provided they don't get rolling with 4 or 5 "3 and outs" in a row. The Jaguars are quite susceptible to the big play (actually from the numbers above, they seem susceptible to just about everything) and this goes back to getting the ball in the hands of your playmakers. I would expect a fair amount of smoke screens and quick outs to challenge the Jaguar corners (#27 Rashean Mathis and #21 Derek Cox) to tackle in the open field and with the change up of the double moves. But, it is all predicated on giving Kitna a chance and staying out of bad spots. It is interesting to note that Jacksonville is one of the few teams in the NFL that actually have less success with blitzing than the Cowboys do. I expect the game in Lambeau and Giants Stadium in a few weeks will be a blitz-fest, but since the Jaguars have the 31st best success rate with their blitz, they may drop more into coverage to challenge Kitna's accuracy and arm strength.
4) - Absolutely Positively No Minus Plays - Ok, this one is obvious, right? The Cowboys have been "good enough" at times to overcome some real brain dead mistakes. Well, come to think of it, they are 1-5, so maybe they haven't been "good enough" to overcome anything this season. Anyway, with a back-up QB and a team with what appears to be a lame duck coaching staff (although we shouldn't take that for granted, I suppose) it is vital that this team doesn't not further make things more difficult on itself with a return to unforced errors and penalties. The attention to detail by the offensive line in particular is going to have to be off the charts. At best, we should assume if everything goes right the Cowboys might be able to get to 17 or 21 points. But, a few bad moments and that can shrink quickly. To get wins now, everything is going to have to run smoothly. The obstacles are going to be tough enough without making things even worse.
Summary: Like I said, if you put all 31 potential opponents on a piece of paper and told Jason Garrett that he could hand pick 1 defense to play at home to nurse his backup QB up to speed, he might select Jacksonville. I think Kitna will be substantially better than Brad Johnson, but that is surely faint praise. The Cowboys and their fans need to drop all of the questions about what record would they need to get back into this and focus on the question of whether this team can get a win of any kind. It is way too early to focus on potential draft position and other big picture items as this is only game #7. Get a win and the attitudes in that locker-room can find a little optimism again. But, the margin for error is almost non-existent.
Bob Sturm is host of BaD Radio on The Ticket 1310 AM Mondays through Fridays at 12-3 p.m. He also hosts The Ticket's Cowboys pregame show. Follow Bob on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bobanddan Bob offers his exclusive analysis after games on SportsDayDFW.com
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