Two teams in search of an identity square off this Sunday when Dallas travels to Oakland. Though Dallas is 2-1, it could easily be 3-0 or 0-3. It's inconsistent pass defense has forced the more experienced offense to carry the team and thus far it has. On the other side of the field an 0-3 Raiders squad has been crippled itself with foolish penalties and a failure to execute at key moments of the game. With a little more grit and a bit of luck, Oakland could be 3-0.
When Oakland Has the Ball
Kerry Collins is the fantasy football equivalent of the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Man. He gets great statistics. He makes big plays. His QB ratings are fine. But his numbers show no ability, at least this year, to translate into wins. That's because Collins is one of the streakiest QBs around. His three starts have all followed the same pattern. He starts hot, with two TDs on opening drives. In the other game, he found the end zone on his second drive. But Collins then seems to fall asleep in the middle of games. Against the Patriots, he started 4-for-4 and a TD. He then was only 7 of 23 in the middle two quarters. Sure, one of them was a 73 yard bomb to Randy Moss, but he left his defense on the field and by the time he cranked it up again late, he was trailing 30 to 14.
Against Kansas City, he was 6 of 7 and put seven on the board before he struggled. Last week was the most streaky performance yet. Four straight and a TD on the opening drive, followed by 8 straight incompletions. Then four straight completions. Then six of seven missed... He got hot late and led the Raiders to a tying score, but his erratic play has to be driving Norv Turner crazy.
The key to slowing Collins down is to keep him guessing. The Eagles regularly stacked the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball, but frequently dropped seven men into coverage. Collins was never sure whether he was going to be blitzed or baited into quick throws into zones and he could not regain his early rhythm until late. The Dallas rush has been inconsistent, in part because Mike Zimmer has so many young players who are still thinking first and running second. The fear of mental mistakes has taken some of the edge off the Dallas blitz. There have been few stunts because the risk of getting out of position and giving up the big play is probably greater than the chance that the rookies will make a play.
Mike Zimmer knows that he cannot play it safe against Collins or his big weapon Randy Moss. Last year, Zimmer played a soft zone against Moss' Vikings and suffered a slow death. Minnesota was happy to take the yards the Cowboys corners were conceding, all the way to the end zone. Terence Newman was especially distressed by the passive scheme; he plays much better in press coverage and will get his chances against Moss. Newman has been the rock of the secondary thus far; he has not made as many big plays as new cornermate Anthony Henry, but has also conceded fewer of them.
Henry comes off a horrid performance against the 49ers, where he was burned by second year man Brandon Lloyd. Henry was acquired to face off against big receivers and he'll get his shots against Moss as well.
The question is how much support do you offer the corners? The Eagles never let Moss leave the line single covered. FS Brian Dawkins offered help on almost every play. In the second quarter, DC Jim Johnson paid Moss the ultimate complement; facing a second and short near midfield, Oakland called a deep pass to Moss out of a short yardage formation. It was a one man route, with all the other Raiders faking a line plunge. The Eagles didn't fall for the fake and had bothcorners, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown bracketing Moss. That's respect.
The Cowboys have played strictly positional packages thus far, with Newman lining up at LC and Henry at RC in base formations, with Aaron Glenn playing LC and Newman lining up in the slot when Dallas goes to nickel. I think they'll change up this week and have one of the starters, probably Newman, cover Moss across the field. Washington got a major mismatch when it lined Santana Moss against the aging Glenn. If Parcells and Zimmer sit back and let Norv Turner match up the 6'5" Moss against the 5'9" Glenn, they have nobody but themselves to blame for the outcome.
Another question is which team will win the ground battle? The Cowboys did an effective job of containing LaDainian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis in the first two games, but leaked rushing yards like a sieve last week against the 49ers. Conversely, the Raiders have been criticized for underusing new running back Lamont Jordan. Jordan flashed some big play ability against the Chiefs, but has yet to get a 20 carry game or top 80 yards in a game. Last week the Eagles shut him down completely, allowing Jordan just 19 yards on 16 carries.
Zimmer will probably keep SS Roy Williams close to the line a lot this week, to prevent Jordan from breaking out and to help in blitzes against Collins. He cannot get carried away, however, as doing so will leave only the shaky Keith Davis in deep coverage. Look for Dallas to roll the dice more on blitzes and stunts, in the hope that they can get to Collins before he finds Moss or Jerry Porter.
Keep an eye on young TE Courtney Anderson. With Dawkins occupied by Moss, the second year man from San Diego State made some big plays against the Eagles' linebackers. He'll likely get similar matchups this week against the Dallas backers.
When Dallas Has the Ball
When Drew Bledsoe takes the offense on the field, he'll see a defense similar to his own. One with some playmakers and some inexperience. A defense with linebackes and safeties who are suspect in coverage. The primary difference is that the Cowboys have made plays to negate their mistakes. The Raiders are desperate for playmakers. Through three games, the Raiders have just two sacks and one interception. Dallas, in contrast, has nine sacks and five INTs.
The Cowboys will likely stick with their ball control philosophy, because it has worked. Bledsoe has led seven TD drives this year longer than 70 yards. Establishing the run has been an early objective, though Dallas might defer the run a little this week. Last week the Eagles opened with an 18 to 4 pass/run ratio. Chasing the QB tired out Oakland's 300+ lb. tackles Ted Washington and Warren Sapp, who are not in the best of shape. Later in the half Andy Reid turned Brian Westbrook loose and he posted some big runs. This isn't the Cowboys' style, but passing to run could work again. The key matchup will come in the middle, where C Al Johnson squares off against the mammoth Washington. Johnson has struggled getting a push against big tackles, but has gotten the nod over Andre Gurode because he's better in pass protection and makes fewer mental mistakes.
The real damage was done by the Eagles' tight ends and running backs against the invisible Raiders' linebackers and safeties. TE's LJ Smith, Chad Lewis and RB Westbrook amassed an incredible 260 yards receiving against the core of Oakland's pass defense. The open middle should have Jason Witten salivating. Witten finally had a big half against the 49ers before he was assigned double coverage. The Raiders are thinner than the 49ers and will pay a price if they devote too much coverage to Witten.
Look for Dallas to run a lot of two TE sets and a base three WR, one RB, one TE set, with Patrick Crayton in the slot and Witten split wide off the line opposite him. This will put both Crayton and Witten in space against Oakland defenders and create the opportunities for big gains.
Another key will be the ability to pass to the backs. Julius Jones got a long gain on a pass last week but is still primarily a blocker or a check down option. The coaches have talked about throwing more to Jones and this could be a good week to experiment. The Eagles got their offense going when they split Westbrook wide and let him outrun Raiders safeties.
Whether its with Crayton, Witten or Jones, expect Dallas to paint a target on Raiders' safety Derrick Gibson. Gibson has struggled in coverage, to put it politely. Last week he took two holding penalties to prevent being burned. In the third quarter, Philly got Westbrook wide on Gibson and completed a 62 yard pass. Later, Westbrook torched Gibson for a 38 yard gain.
Gibson is having every bit as much trouble as Keith Davis, perhaps more. Don't think the Cowboys will go easy on him.
Both teams enter the game with major issues. Dallas has just changed long snappers, releasing Jon Condo. Condo developed the yips and almost got kicker Jose Cortez killed last week. The Raiders continue to suffer kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who has already missed four field goals this year. He missed two midrange kicks last week that could have won the game.
Prediction: Bill Parcells likes to say you are what your record says you are. I'm going to take him at his word. Right now, his Cowboys are a moody team that runs hot on offense and cold on defense, with just enough big defensive plays mixed in to keep the win/loss ledger in the black.
The Raiders, on the other hand, are becoming comfortable with losing. If they were merely victims of bad luck, they would be no worse than 1-2 or perhaps even 2-1. But they've been consistent in their mistakes, which is why they're still looking for a win. Sebastian Janikowski has consistently missed field goals. Kerry Collins has been consistently streaky. The defense has been consistent in extending opponents' drives with penalties. Etc., etc., etc.
I can almost guarantee that the Collins will start hot and get the Raiders and early TD. He has in all of their games. I can also predict with some certainty that sometime in the middle of the game he'll hit Randy Moss for a deep score. He's done that in two of their games. In addition, the Cowboys have allowed a bomb in each of their last two games. Oakland will move the ball. The Raiders will score points.
But we can also be fairly certain that they'll bog down, commit silly penalties, take sacks at the wrong time of the game and hand Dallas a turnover or two. Dallas has been good, most of the time, at making the big plays. Oakland has been even more consistent at giving them up. I've gone back and forth on this all week, but I'm playing the most consistent streak, which is Oakland's losing one.
Dallas 27, Oakland 24