The Cowboys prepare to host the Raiders in the annual Turkey Day fest. Dallas appears to be beaten up, with Tony Romo receiving treatment for his ailing back and Jason Witten a game-time decision because of a sprained foot.
Their dings suggest trouble, because the Cowboys have faced heavy blitzing the last month and the Raiders are a blitz-happy team that likes to rush its linebackers and secondary players. A closer look suggests that the Cowboys runners, who performed well against Washington, may be able to shield Romo from the worst possible rush pressure.
When Oakland Has the Ball
The Raiders have an anemic offense. There is no other way to characterize it. They rank last in many of the NFL's statistical categories: last in points; last in yards; last in first downs. The Raiders problems stem from an awful passing game. Jamarcus Russell was benched last week in favor of former Buc Bruce Gradkowski, who had a respectable game in the Raiders 20-17 win over the Bengals.
But let's put respectable in context. Oakland gained 275 yards in that game. That's less than Dallas' season low against Denver. Oakland has topped 300 yards just twice this year. (Dallas, by contrast, has been below 300 just once.) Oakland has been under 200 yards five times.
Tight end Zach Miller is the Raiders passing attack, and Dallas will likely give him special attention. He has 34 catches, double the next Raider on the list. When you grouse about Roy Williams and the Cowboys problem at receiver, give thanks tomorrow that you don't root for Oakland. Louis Murphy leads their receiving corps with 17 catches. He's the only receiver on the the team with more than ten receptions. Think about that: Murphy is only Raiders receiver averaging more than one catch per game.
Oakland has a decent running attack, led by big back Michael Bush, and the Raiders line kept Gradkowski sack free last week, but that likely won't happen again. Bengals DC Mike Zimmer doesn't blitz all that much and Wade Phillips has dialed up the blitz intensity as the season has progressed. He put intense pressure on Jason Campbell last week. Campbell hurt the Cowboys with his size and mobility, spinning free from a few near sacks to make big throws down field.
Phillips has used a new wrinkle on the nickle recently, dropping the normal 4-2-5 lineup for a 3-3-5 look. He leaves Jay Ratliff on the nose and puts Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen at the ends. Demarcus Ware and Bobby Carpenter line up as the OLBs and Bradie James stackes directly behind Ratliff in the middle. Wade was sending five and often all six rushers at Campbell and I think he plans on stopping Bush and Justin Fargas early and turning the nickel guys loose at Gradkowski. He's a competent QB but he has neither the size nor speed Campbell possesses. He also throws with a low, sidearm delivery. I'm guessing Phillips believes these near sacks will turn into real ones tomorrow.
When Dallas Has the Football
The Raiders like to blitz, but they don't get to do it much. That's because teams probably pass less against the Raiders than against any other team. The average 2009 Raiders opponent has run 36 times and passed 29 times a game. That's a 55 to 45 percent run-to-pass ratio. Consider that the league average is 45 to 55, run to pass.
Opponents have been able to get leads and grind away on the ground. This hints at another game plan similar to Washington's, with Dallas hammering Felix Jones and Marion Barber on 1st and 2nd downs, and using Tashard Choice on 3rd down plays.
On Sunday, Dallas lacked accuracy in its passing game. Tony Romo was a bit high or behind on many of his early throws. Therefore, drives were aborted after a first down or two. Romo hurt his back early against Washington and report are that he's improving. A sharper Romo should mean earlier scoring. Your turkey should not go cold while you wait for the Cowboys to get on the board.
This game could also be another showcase for Nick Folk, who would ease the Cowboys Nation's collective mind by making his chances. Folk has been off since the preseason and continues to be just off to the left and to the right.
The Cowboys offense has returned to the shaky place it visited against Denver and Kansas City. The team had just 3 points 40 minutes into the Chiefs game, after scoring just 7 the week before. Big plays by Tashard Choice and Miles Austin helped them exhale and go on a subsequent three-game scoring spree.
You can see the unit pressing again. The late TD drive may have been the tonic. We'll know early. The Cowboys need a quick score, from any source, offense, defense and special teams, to relax and play their game. There's no guarantee it will happen, but the defense should be able to hold Oakland in check while the offensive guys search for an answer.
Hope they don't eat any turkey and wine early, or they'll make like Jerry Seinfeld and play logey for a third straight week. That will have the rest of us going double on the holiday spirits.