The Dallas Cowboys (7-5) overcame a sluggish start and several ex-Cowboys to churn out a 31-24 win over the Oakland Raiders. The players will have a well-deserved weekend off to rest up after the short week, while the coaches will likely go to work on the next opponent, the Chicago Bears, this weekend.
As a lifelong Cowboys fan (starting from the Triplets era) who's been a Chicago resident since 2010, I've watched the Bears with an eye to similarities. Both franchises Super Bowl glory is more than a generation past, what with Texas' defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat set to enter the 2014 draft and possibly end up playing for the team his father Jim played for during the 1992 to 1994 Super Bowl runs. The shadow of 'Da Coach' lingers over the Bears franchise, much more so than Jimmy Johnson's shadow lingers in Dallas, since former Cowboys tight end Mike Ditka is still visible on so many billboard and bus ads here in the City and across Chicagoland.
With that said, the Cowboys have not enjoyed much success against the Bears in the Jay Cutler era. In 2010 Chicago rallied at Cowboys Stadium by exploiting the Cowboys aging middle linebacker corps with passes to backs and tight ends, and prevailed even without an elite receiver. In 2012 Tony Romo had a multi-interception meltdown that began, as with many bad plays in 2011 or 2012, with him and Dez Bryant not exactly being on the same page, until Kyle Orton had to finish the game for a battered Romo.
Since that multi-interception game on October 1, 2012, Tony Romo has taken much better care of the football. This year Romo is on pace for one of his best touchdown to interception ratios since his epic 2007 season, without being fully converted to a 'bus driver' as I and others had feared before Jason Garrett (successfully) tweaked the offense during the bye week.
WHEN THE BEARS ARE ON DEFENSE...
Let's start with the good news for the Cowboys. By prevailing against a feisty Oakland Raiders team they're now 7-5 and likely in the driver's seat of the NFC East after this weekend's expected Philadelphia Eagles loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Their closest rivals the Eagles also have to face an explosive Detroit Lions offense that is now running the football very well before they come to Cowboys Stadium for a regular season finale I expect to be anti-climactic.
In addition to getting several days to rest and hopefully come into Soldier Field healthier than any time since the opener, the defense Tony Romo and company will face isn't last year or even 2010's Monsters of the Midway. The Bears are banged up and have suffered the same defensive line injury disease that's afflicted the Cowboys this season, in addition to the steep decline of former Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers. The decline of the former Carolina Panther has been one of the most discussed items among Bears fans calling into postgame talk radio this year, along with the general lack of pass rush injuries have robbed the Bears of up the gut.
At defensive tackle Chicago will be starting former Kiffinelli 'rushman' Landon Cohen, and may also field our old friend Jay Ratliff (who for some reason, ESPN Chicago thinks goes by his middle name of 'Jeremiah' as of this 10 o'clock hour on Thanksgiving night). That's after losing Texas Ex and dynamo 3 tech Henry Melton and 1 tech Nate Collins to IR. The Bears need all the help a suddenly 'healthy' Ratliff can give them as this defense was gashed for over 200 yards on the ground by the St. Louis Rams on November 24. This weekend the Bears are playing at Minnesota against the red-hot Adrian Peterson. 'All Day' is running behind an even better offensive line than that of the Rams. Along with his backup Toby Gerhart he gashed the Green Bay Packers stout front for over 200 yards at Lambeau Field. (Let us hope, even if Aaron Rodgers returns from a broken collarbone in time to play at Cowboys Stadium this season, that the Packers defensive woes bode well for the Cowboys keeping Rodgers on the sideline).
At linebacker, not only is Brian Urlacher long retired but his long time running mate Lance Briggs is out injured, and the Bears have also placed former Denver Broncos first round draft pick D.J. Williams on injured reserve. That leaves rookie Jon Bostic who is having an up and down first season and former Carolina Panther James Anderson holding down the middle of the Bears defense. While Chicago's remaining backers are all solid run stuffing tacklers, expect Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan to attack the seams with Jason Witten and our receivers. The Cowboys should be able to attack the middle of the field because as previously mentioned, the Bears have lacked quality pass rush almost from the start of the season. They've had to blitz their backers to make up for the lack of base pressure. However Briggs was probably their best blitzer. Despite some impressive hits and tackles for loss, neither Bostic nor Anderson has been able to match the wily veteran's outstanding recognition skills in the passing game.
At cornerback the man who pick-sixed Tony Romo in 2012, Charles "Peanut" Tillman, is now on injured reserve with a triceps tear and may have played his last down as a Bear at age 32. The Bears still have the undersized but outstanding Tim Jennings and his fellow ballhawk Chris Conte in their secondary, and yet the inability of the D-line to stop the run led to big plays by the Rams' Tavon Austin and Jared Cook...despite ex-Jets QB Kellen Clemens completing slightly less than half of his passes last Sunday. As Romo is much better than Clemens and the Bears defensive line is smaller than the Raiders stout front, I expect the Cowboys to have some success rushing which in turn, will open up play action passes down field as well as intermediate throws like slants and comebacks that exploit Dez Bryant and Miles Austin's size mismatch against Jennings.
Bottom line: while the Bears quality safety tandem and remaining corners won't give up deep passing plays, their front 4's inability to get quick pressure or stuff the run gives Dallas a decent chance of escaping Chicago with a hard fought win. The intermediate throws behind the backers in front of the safeties and completions to Dez and Miles that force Jennings and company to come up and tackle should be there on December 9. But do not sleep on the physicality of this defense or their ability, as former Rod Marinelli disciples, to be opportunistic and strip or pick off the football. And the Windy City weather, which undoubtedly aided the Bears in beating the visiting Baltimore Ravens on a crazy, stormy day this month, could be a factor as well. Dallas needs to keep working on the run game and hope
that Dunbar can come back and if not, that Murray, Randle and Tanner can move the chains on the cold Soldier Field turf.
Next up: this weekend, I'll look at how the Cowboys defense matches up with the Bears quality offense, including our old friend Martellus Bennett.