Sunday's matchup against Tennessee, a team that, like Dallas, has yet to establish its 2010 identity, offers a cornucopia of intriguing storylines. Here are a few that I will be following:
Who's yer Buddy: Wade Phillips and Tennessee Head Coach Jeff Fisher share a branch on the Buddy Ryan coaching tree. From 1986-88, Fisher served as the defensive backs coach, with Phillips as the defensive coordinator. When Phillips moved on to become the Broncos DC, Fisher was promoted to Phillips' old position. You can say whatever you want about Ryan the elder (I'll just put my view out there: he was a world-class dirtbag) but you have to hand it to him: his teams played terrific, aggressive defense, blitzing opposing offenses into submission and pounding their quarterback into jelly.
If there has been a consistent narrative defining Fisher's teams, it is that they are similarly physical. Like it did with Ryan's teams, that physicality often reaps psychological dividends; against the Giants in week three, they beat New York up and got into their heads. The usually composed Giants lost their cool and committed a series of dumb post-whistle type penalties. A similar degree of physical play against last week's opponent, Denver, has produced an already-tired media meme: the Titans play dirty. Whether or not this is true, the Cowboys must match the Titans, playing hard to the whistle without succumbing to the loss of control that contributed to the Giants' second-half meltdown. The Cowboys are physical (they are one of the biggest teams in the league), but they aren't notoriously tough. Can they match Tennessee's toughness on Sunday?
Dig the Trenches: In some ways, this current iteration of the Titans' defense reminds me of the defensive group in Tennessee's late-90s glory years: a hard-nosed bunch of relative unknowns (other than Javon Kearse, can you name one of their defensive linemen from that era?) who play hard to the whistle. This year's Titans squad, lead by journeyman DE Dave Ball, tops the league in sacks; the Cowboys lead the league in fewest sacks allowed. When the Cowboys are on offense, something's got to give. Which line will prevail?
On the other side of the line, the Titans offensive grunts have quite literally done a historic job blocking for the run: Chris Johnson has amassed more than 3,200 yards in the last two full seasons and set a record last year for yards from scrimmage. That said, they have been far less successful in 2010 than in the recent past (another nice evaluation of their recent running woes can be found here). There are several factors behind this; one of the problems seems to be the fact that they bid farewell to center Kevin Mawae this past offseason. Mawae's replacement at the pivot, Eugene Amano, spent the bulk of his seven-year career at guard and has been overmatched at his new position. He struggled most mightily against Steelers nose tackles Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. If Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent can clog up the middle in similar fashion, it will go a long way towards limiting Johnson, the Titans' primary (and, some would say, only real) weapon.
Familiarity breeds success?: When Cowboys looked at film of the Titans this week, they likely rubbed their eyes, wondering if they were watching tape from one of their previous opponents. On the field Sunday, they will indeed see much they recognize. The Titans' offense is a direct descendant of Mike Shanahan's scheme, which they have already encountered twice this year, against Washington and Houston. Like Shanahan and Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger looks to stretch the field on running plays to the edges and then run counter action and QB rollouts to the other side. A key difference, of course, is that Johnson and his backup, Javon Ringer, provide a greater home run threat than any backfield they have seen thus far. The good news? Johnson's two worst games this year came against 3-4 defenses (Pittsburgh and Denver), who were able to use quicker outside linebackers to control the perimeter, forcing Johnson inside, where the Titans o-line is weakest.
Tennessee's defense--and in particular their defensive line--will feel familiar as well: the Titans play a 4-3, with a line comprised of smaller, quicker players, much like those in Chicago and Houston. Although they don't have a Julius Peppers or a Mario Williams, they do go two-deep with a relentless bunch of no-name guys, lead by the aforementioned Ball, who rush the passer on every down, figuring that they'll stop the run on the way to the quarterback. This is precisely the kind of line and scheme that historically has given the Cowboys ponderous offensive linemen fits. Against Houston, however, the Texans quick d-line failed to gain much upfield penetration. As a result, they were forced to blitz linebackers and safeties, thus opening up sizable passing lanes. If the Titans can get pressure with their front four, it threatens to be a long day for Tony Romo. If not, we are likely to see a reprise of the Texans contest's aerial fireworks. Which matchup will we see on Sunday? This leads me to my next storyline:
Aberration or trend?: Another tired media-driven theme has been the lack of success for the Cowboys running game. One of many reasons it hasn't flourished is because opposing defenses, following Washington's lead, have been stacking the box to stop the run and then blitzing to put pressure on #9. In response to this, the Cowboys have employed more or less the same offensive scheme in all three games: a short passing game featuring one and three step drops, with occasional long shots downfield. By limiting the number of Romo's five and seven step drops, Jason Garrett has kept him from harm, as evidenced by the lone sack the Cowboys have given up thus far this season. Will Garrett and Co. continues to max protect for Romo?
If so, this brings us to what I'll call "Garrett's Conundrum." In a previous post, I noted that this max protect style of offense, although a necessity when Marc Columbo was out of the lineup, nevertheless played into Washington's hands because of the Cowboys demonstrated inability to sustain long drives. Indeed, when the Cowboys offense has been successful over the past 20 games or so, it has been because they have succeeded at being a big-play bunch. In the Houston game, for the first time all year, the Cowboys offense managed to avoid the various dreaded drive-killers that have plagued them so. As a result, one offensive philosophy (long drives featuring sustained execution) led to the other (big plays). Here's a storyline that will define not only this next game, but likely the remainder of the season: was Dallas' ability to execute and sustain offense against the Texans a one-game aberration or the beginning of a new trend?
To the other sideline: the Titans have been up and down week by week this season. A dominating win against Oakland was followed by a beatdown at the hands of the Steelers. The next week, Tennessee rallied to embarrass the Giants, then threw away a likely win by surrendering ten points in the final four minutes against Denver. If we accept this as a trend, this is the week the Titans are scheduled to be "up." Do we expect them to be stinging from their come-from-ahead loss to Denver, or were they exposed against the Broncos as a hopelessly one-dimensional team? I'll be interested to find out.
Special Sauce: In yet another of our own O.C.C.'s most excellent posts, he offers up a juicy slice of statistical pie: the strongest indicators of victory as they have presented themselves thus far in the 2010 season. The stat that caught my eye was this: a shockingly high percentage of game winners have been the team that won the field position battle. This puts a premium on the "hidden yardage" that was so dear to Bill Parcells. Taking a page from the Book of Bill, O.C.C. points out the obvious value of the kicking game:
Let's look at the "hidden" yardage for the Cowboys games this season: -10 versus the Redskins in a game that was decided on the last play of the game, -172 against Chicago in a game that looks closer than it actually was and +82 against Houston.
This offers a painfully clear correlation between the Cowboys' special teams play and their chances of victory. Before I read his post, I was prepared to opine that a key to Sunday's tilt would be to win the turnover battle. O.C.C.'s conclusions suggested to me, however, that turnovers might be seen as merely a contributing factor to a larger, more important statistic: field position. On Sunday, I expect the field position battle to be a crucial determinant of the final result. In the Titans-Broncos game, rookie Marc Mariani had a 98-yard kickoff return for a score. Big kick returns such as this are potential anxiety producers: in the Cowboys' defeats, they have lost the field position battle largely as a result of poor kickoff return and kickoff coverage play. If that continues, their one-game win streak most likely won't.
In an earlier post, I noted the progress that Dallas special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis has made thus far with an almost entirely new core of players. The Titans have experienced growing pains as well; Pittsburgh returned the opening kickoff for six. Because of my faith in Joe D's work, I'm betting the special teams performance against Houston was a trend rather than an aberration. Because of this, I see the Cowboys sitting at 2-2 by 7:30 EST on Sunday.
Want a prediction? Let's say 23-14, 'Boys.