As has already been widely noted by NFL scribes, on Monday Night the Cowboys face a team, the Chicago Bears, that looks a lot like they do. Both teams boast good defenses, with active front sevens. After three weeks, the Cowboys have been the league's stingiest team in terms of total yards allowed; the Bears lead the league in sacks with 14. On Monday, this defensive excellence is likely to be compounded by the fact that neither team's offensive line has played well.
As we know all-too painfully well, Tony Romo has spent the bulk of the 2012 season running for his life. Even in the season opener against the Giants, he often had to rely on his Jedi skills to escape pressure and find open receivers downfield. Against Seattle and Tampa Bay, he was scarce able to drop back without meeting immediate pressure, often up the middle, in his face. The result? Dallas is last in the NFL in points scored, with 47 (just over 15 a game). Romo is not alone in this; his opposite on Monday, Jay Cutler, has been sacked 11 times, and hit on 20 other occasions in Chicago's first three games. Consequently, a Bears offensive unit featuring some elite skill position players cranked out a grand total of 168 yards of offense in a 23-10 week two loss to the Packers and a single offensive touchdown and a mere 171 passing yards in a 23-6 win over the lowly Rams last week.
As any coach will tell you, football is a game of matchups. On Monday, each team will enjoy a significant, favorable matchup wherein a strength, the defensive line, goes up against a weak link in the opposing offensive line. Because of these apparent mismatches, Monday Night's tilt looks to be a defensive battle, with neither offensive line able to generate much push in the running game or likely to offer its signal caller sufficient time for deep patterns to develop.In other words, we're likely to see a repeat of the style of football game we saw against Tampa Bay and in the first half against Seattle: neither offense able to establish a rhythm; lots of defensive penetration; few big plays.
The Cowboys are 1-1 in these kinds of contests. What do they have to do to move their record in ugly slugfests to 2-1? Here are Rabble's five keys to victory:
1. Win on first down. More properly, this should read "don't lose so badly on first down"; against the Buccaneers, Dallas had the following yards to go on second down: 10, 15 (after 5-yard penalty), 6, 13, 12, 12, 10, 11, 16 (after 5-yard penalty), 11, 12, 2, 6, 9, 5, 3, 9, 20, 7, 12 (after 5-yard penalty), 12, 7, 17 (after 10-yard penalty), 14 (after kneel-down). The result was the worst average yards to go on second down since Tony Romo became the Cowboys' quarterback. They averaged a shocking second and 11.3.
Most offensive coordinators will tell you their number one priority is to avoid "long" situations, wherein their units become one dimensional. Against a pass rush like Chicago's, Dallas simply cannot afford to repeat week three's putrefying first-down performance, or Julius Peppers and Co. will have too many opportunities to tee off on number nine. In the second half last week, it appears Jason Garrett's first down play calls (such as the 5 yard outlet pass to Lawrence Vickers) were designed primarily to secure more manageable second down distances. He'll need to dial up more of these on Monday.
2. Avoid pre-snap penalties. In the above list of second down yards-to-go, you'll notice how many times Dallas made an already difficult second down next-to impossible by earning a yellow flag, usually for some kind of pre-snap miscue. For those of you who question Jason Garrett's play-calling, I challenge you to come up with a play that will consistently succeed when facing second and 13; frankly, there isn't one. If the players can get on the same page, it will actually allow Garrett to use all the plays on his laminated call sheet.
Here's the thing: the Cowboys' offensive line is going to struggle mightily; they cannot shoot themselves in their collective size 16 feet. In the aftermath of the Tampa Bay game, it was suggested that the lion's share of the O-line's miscommunication was a result of their new pivotman, Ryan Cook. If these problems aren't rectified against the Bears, Dallas will be in for a long night.
3. Don't lose the third phase. In the 90s, Jimmy Johnson used to say that, to win, his team needed to win two of the three phases of the game. In the last two contests, the Dallas defense has played well enough against the opposing offense to win and the Cowboys offense has not - a pattern that I'd expect to continue against the Bears. In weeks two and three, the difference between winning and losing has been the play of the third unit, Joe DeCamillis' special teams.
Against Seattle, of course, they were whipped and key teams miscues contributed directly to the loss; in the Buccaneers game, however, they played well: Orie Lemon's recovery of a fumbled punt and Dez Bryant's scintillating fourth quarter punt return both generated points in a close game. Chicago's special teams units - especially return ace Devin Hester - are dangerous. For the Cowboys to win, they have to play the Bears ST units even; they cannot afford turnovers or huge changes in field position.
4. Get short fields. After two weeks, the Cowboys hadn't enjoyed a "short field." In other words, they had yet to start a drive in opponent's territory. In fact, the average starting position for Dallas' 19 possessions in their first two contests was their own 20. Moreover, only one Cowboys' drive started beyond the 30: the second drive of the season opener, when they took over at their own 34 after a Giants fumble. This trend ended in week three, when thirteen of the team's sixteen points came on drives that began in Tampa Bay territory. When the offense is struggling mightily, 80-yard scoring drives aren't likely to come with any frequency; the Cowboys offense will need the defense and special teams to set them up with some short fields so they can score some "easy points."
5. Be patient, grasshopper. I have already documented the Chicago offense's struggles in recent weeks. As might be expected, Cutler is not immune to this malaise. Three weeks into the 2012 campaign, Cutler has thrown twice as many picks as he has touchdowns (six to three), has completed a career-low 52.7 percent of his passes, and has a 58.6 passer rating to show for his play (which, after three weeks, was second-worst in the league, behind Miami rookie Ryan Tannehill’s 58.3).
Tony Romo's critics maintain that, if they keep the game close, they believe he will eventually make a crippling error. If this is true of Romo (and I think this claim is disputable if not specious), then it's doubly so of Cutler. With Cutler on the other sideline, the Cowboys can play a low-risk game, secure in the knowledge that he's very likely to make a fatal mistake late in the contest. To play this sort of game will require tremendous patience on the offense's part, a willingness to play a close-to-the-vest, field position game. The corollary here is that the Cowboys must win the turnover battle.
If they can manage this, I think Dallas can hold on in an ugly defensive game before extending a late lead. I think they can.