Several of our esteemed front-page scribes have already offered previews of this weekend's Cowboys-Bears tilt and I was feeling left out. So, I'd like to offer a few of my own thoughts on the game, focusing on what to expect when the Cowboys are on offense. As a way into this, I'd like to take a brief look at how Tony Romo and the Dallas offense have fared historically against the style of defense run by the Bears, the famed Tampa-2.
The sample size is fairly small: The Cowboys played three Tampa-2 teams in both 2006 and 2007. In '06, home games against Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Detroit brought this defense to Texas Stadium; in '07 the Cowboys went on the road to find Tampa-2's in Chicago, Buffalo and Detroit. In looking at these games, we often see them perform the same two-act play:
Act I: The Cowboys offense struggles early: In the Indianapolis, Chicago, Buffalo and second Detroit games, the team had to overcome slow starts. Against Indy, they were scoreless at halftime; in the Bears game, they worked to scrape together a second-quarter field goal; the Bills game saw another scoreless first quarter and ten points at halftime; the 2007 Detroit game saw another scoreless first quarter followed by a (desperate) fourteen point second-quarter rally. Notice a theme here?
Act II: Dallas finds its sea legs: In each of these contests, the offense steadily gained confidence and momentum and ended up moving the ball with comparative ease as the game went on, such that the final quarters of these games became an entirely different story. Look at these fourth quarters totals: Indy (14); Chicago (17); Buffalo (13); Detroit (14). Also noteworthy is that the Dallas D pitched a shutout in each of these final frames. In sum, Cowboys' games against teams deploying Tampa-2 defenses tend to be like title fights: several rounds of feeling out the opponent, a few jabs designed to find out their weaknesses and then, in the later rounds, a flurry of uppercuts and an occasional roundhouse for good measure. On a couple of occasions, at Buffalo and Detroit in '07, our champs were behind on points and needed a 12th round TKO to salvage a victory.
The offensive and defensive coordinators on that '07 Detroit team? Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli, who reprise those roles on the Bears squad that comes to town on Sunday. Should we expect a replay of that nail-biter? Some thoughts after the jump:
Patience, grasshopper: As outlined above, Romo (and Garrett) tend to start slowly against Tampa-2 teams. They should; that's exactly what the defense is designed to accomplish. At the same time, we know that both of them tend to get a bit antsy when things aren't going well: Romo tries to make something happen and takes a big risk; Garrett panics and abandons the running game. The Dallas offense must stay the course and stick to their gameplan, even when they get behind--which is a real possibility, given the mad genius behind Chicago's attack. The Cowboys will need to stick to the run--and run well--in order to keep Brian Urlacher honest. If he is forced to respect the running game, he'll have to stay closer to the line of scrimmage, which will open up the middle of the field for the likes of Witten, Bennett and slot receivers.
Let '10 Romo beat '07 Romo: We have all witnessed the steady maturation of Tony Romo. This is seen in his decision-making, his command of the huddle and in the way he handles the press. Perhaps the most important aspect of his maturation, however, is his improved ball security. On Sunday, should the Cowboys get behind, its key that Romo stay cool and avoid turnovers. This is of particular import given that, across the field, he will see a reflection of his younger, more turnover-prone self in Jay Cutler. Last week, the Bears out-gained the Lions by a sizeable margin (463-168), but almost (should have) lost because they turned the ball over four times (three lost fumbles and a Cutler pick). This, in a nutshell, is the Cutler story. Be cool and let him be Jay, and all well be well.
Hold that line: For Romo to be his fully incarnated 2010 self, the offensive line will have to hold up against the firm of Peppers, Urlacher & Co. The good news, of course, is that Kyle Kosier and Marc Columbo are back in the lineup; the bad news is that they are not in game shape and might have to be spelled by Montrae Holland and Alex Barron. This points to a larger issue: offensive line continuity. Regardless of who plays LG and RT, the familiarity that is so important to good O-line play will not be there. Given the tape Jim Haslett gave the rest of the league last week, don't be surprised to see defenses mix two-deep coverage with exotic blitzes until the Cowboys prove they can beat it. To discourage the rest of the league from employing this strategy, the O-line will have to find some of its old mojo.
Don't sleep on the Bears; they have a lot of good pieces in place, and Marinelli and Martz have proven they can give the Cowboys fits. Nevertheless, the Cowboys' defense matches up much better than the '07 version did against the Lions. As a result, I think they'll keep the team in the game long enough for Cutler, operating in Martz' high-risk, high-reward scheme, to make a mistake or two, giving them a defensive score or gifting the Dallas O a short field or two to work with. It might not be pretty, especially at first. But there is a certain beauty to 1-1 that suits me just fine.