At first glance, it might seem that the key to obtaining a "W" on Sunday in Indianapolis is to shut down--or at least limit--Payton Manning and the Colts prolific offense. Certainly, this is important; if Manning the elder puts up a fortyburger, the Cowboys are in trouble, no doubt. I'll discuss matchups between the Cowboys D and the Colts O later in the week. Right now, I'd like to look at what the Cowboys need to do when they have the ball.
Since assuming the head coaching mantle, Jason Garret has not only improved the Cowboys from a head coaching standpoint, but has upped his game in his role as offensive coordinator. As has been extensively documented, in the last three games, the Cowboys, with a backup quarterback, mediocre offensive line and running game, are averaging 32 points and 400 yards a contest. They have managed to manufacture running yardage (over 100 yards on the ground in each of the last three games) if not a running game, and Jon Kitna leads the NFL in third down QB rating. Clearly, on the offensive side of the ball, much has worked of late.
Nevertheless, the NFL is all about matchups--and the Cowboys don't match up well in one key area: their offensive line against the Colts' quick, undersized defensive front. Before we look at Indy, let's take a look back. At the beginning of the season, the Cowboys faced several similarly sized, if not equally quick defensive fronts. Several teams on the 2010 schedule--Chicago and all the AFC South squads--feature smaller defensive ends (in the 255-270 lb. range) alongside 295-305 lb. defensive tackles. These units tend to be lighter and quicker, and thus are better at stunting and playing line games. And its precisely this sort of defensive front that has given the Cowboys O-line fits, not only this year, but in recent seasons.
But this year they have been the most overmatched. In the preseason, Houston exploited their superior interior quickness to obliterate the ponderous Dallas O-line; in the regular season, Chicago didn't amass any sacks, but they did hurry Tony Romo (remember him?) into a couple of costly bad throws. Against Tennessee, Romo was harassed constantly; the Titans took him to the turf a season-high six times; Jacksonville downed Kitna twice and pressured him numerous others. Numbers aside, whenever the Dallas offensive line has gone up against a smaller, quicker defensive front this season, they have looked sluggish, getting beat around the edge, allowing interior penetration and failing to pick up switches on line games.
Perhaps the quickest of all the smallish 4-3 fronts the Cowboys will face this year resides in Indianapolis. The starting ends, the blue streaks known as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, are household names. Inside, the Colts start pedestrian tackles Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson, whose primary attribute is their size (last year's tackles, Kenyuta Dawson and Eric Foster, ran in the 250 lb. range). In passing situations, however, Foster moves inside, as the under tackle, and Freeney and Mathis pin their ears back. It's in these obvious passing downs when Cowboys' offensive line coach Hudson Houck should be anxious; the Colts pass rushing front is just too quick for any of the Dallas linemen other than Free.
So, if I'm Jason Garrett, my number one priority is to stay out of obvious passing situations and avoid what Jimmy Johnson used to call the "feeding frenzy." Keep track of Dallas' offensive formations on Sunday. As long as the game is in reach, I'm betting we'll see a lot of heavy, multiple-tight end, formations that force Indy to keep their bigger, slower tackles in the game. I think we'll see a lot of early-down runs mixed in with shorter, safer play-action passes. Also, take a look at where Jason Witten lines up and how often he goes out into pass pattern. Against Chicago earlier in the season, the Bears didn't get to Tony Romo, in no small part because Witten stayed in to help protect him on a fourth of the passing plays in which he was on the field. Although Witten's numbers have spiked of late, I wouldn't be surprised to see them drop off a bit this week.
I'm anticipating that the whole plan will be to get Jon Kitna in manageable third down situations, where the 'Boys can run their base offense from under center. Reports indicate that Dallas might bring Tashard Choice out of wraps for this game; if so, look for him to get some tough carries between the tackles. If Choice runs effectively, Indy's ends will be forced to pinch inside just a bit--and that bit can make all the difference if and when Garret does choose to open it up later in the game. If Choice gets 12 carries, Dallas has a chance; if they spend a lot of time in "11" (3-wide or, if Witten is split out, 4-wide) or, worse, "s11" (shotgun version of same), then they're in trouble: not only will this mean that they are behind, but they'll be playing right into Indianapolis' strength.
Freeny and Mathis, with their ears pinned back? I'd rather not...