Two former division rivals are reunited Sunday when Dallas plays Arizona. The game will be important for both teams, as Arizona tries to build off a win last Sunday at Tennessee. Dennis Green's Cardinals are a paltry 2-4, underperforming for a team some picked to make the playoffs this year. (That includes me.) The Cowboys need to rebound from a devastating 13-10 loss to Seattle. A win would take them to the bye at 5-3, a highly respectable first half.
When Arizona Has the Ball
Dennis Green is a stubborn guy. He was a long time assistant under Bill Walsh at San Francisco but when he became head coach what offense did he adopt? Walsh's? No, it was the one-back, two-tight end formations of rival Joe Gibbs. Green later became more daring and made his Vikings one of the first to use a one-back, three-receiver set as its base offensive formation.
He still using that package in Arizona. Green has added Larry Fitzgerald to the inherited duo of Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson. The mystery has been finding a quarterback. Arizona acquired former Rams and Giants QB Kurt Warner, but he was replaced by Josh McCown three games into the season. McCown has been an improvement over Warner, but he's been highly erratic, throwing for 350 yards some weeks and for half that the next.
One reason is his offense's lack of balance. Arizona's running game has yet to produce a rushing touchdown. It's backs are averaging around 70 yards per game. Teams know that Arizona needs to pass and have adjusted accordingly.
The bad news for Cardinals opponents is that few of them can match up to the size Arizona brings. Boldin is 6'1", 220; Fitzgerald is 6'3", 223 and Johnson is 6'3", 213. The good news if you're a Cowboys fan is that the Cardinals offensive line, with all of its high picks, is playing so-so ball yet again. This means that McCown gets sacked a lot -- 16 times in the last five games. It also means that McCown gets pressured and makes a lot of mistakes. Arizona has committed 18 turnovers in its six games, a neat, clean three-per-game average. Last week's win over the Titans was the first time Arizona did not commit at least two.
Dallas will be tested by the size, but can probably win most of the matchups. The key will be stopping Boldin and Fitzgerald. Both have rebounded from injuries last season to play like first day selections. Boldin especially has regained his rookie of the year form. The Cowboys have shown a tendency to play matchup in recent weeks, and I suspect that Anthony Henry will draw Boldin, since he plays outside in most Arizona formations and Terence Newman will take Fitzgerald, who does most of his work out of the slot.
With so much rushing in the game plan, the Cowboys will probably keep more linemen active for this game. That means more Jay Ratliff, who plays when Dallas faces pass happy teams like Philadelphia and Seattle. Dallas will probably use a lot more of the 4-2-5 package they threw at the Eagles three weeks ago, since the running game is less of a concern.
Don't think, however that Dallas will abandon the 3-4. NT Jason Ferguson is healthy again and his play the last three weeks has been a major factor in the defense's improvement. Ferguson is making plays on running and passing downs. He has lessened the reps for fellow NT/DT LaRoi Glover and made him more effective.
Dallas has more flexibility in the 3-4 now that LB Scott Fujita is part of the rotation. He can play, and blitz, from both outside positions, so he lets Demarcus Ware roam the line. Ware has rushed from both outside spots the past couple of weeks.
When Dallas Has the Ball
Six of one, a half dozen of the other. Dallas was strong in pass blocking the first five games, but mediocre running the ball. Last week the running game showed signs of life, but was undermined by a severe dropoff in the Cowboys' protection. The suspected culprits were the young tackles, TorrinTucker and Rob Petitti. Against the Seahawks, however, Tucker looked solid. He got almost no extra help from backs and tight ends and handled his man. He made two critical fourth quarter mistakes, blowing an assignment on a 3rd and 2 running play and giving up a half sack on a third down and goal on the series where Jose Cortez missed a short field goal. However, his play stacks up against a typical Flozell Adams game. He was strong in the running game and kept the mental errors to a minimum.
The real meltdown came on the right side of the line. Rookie Rob Petitti was responsible for two and half sacks and was flagged for holding. Less noticeable but just as damaging were the miscues of RG Marco Rivera. He gave up a sack that ended a Cowboys second half drive and committed two penalties. A false start was overcome but a holding penalty negated a 22 yard screen pass to Marion Barber that would have moved Dallas deep in Seahawks territory in the second quarter. It sucked momentum from the offense when it was trying to build on a 7-0 lead.
The mental mistakes can and should be corrected. Rivera is a long time vet and a Pro Bowler. The sacks are what cause concern. Rivera had given up only two in his last three years at Green Bay. After a clean first five games he has now allowed two sacks in two weeks. Coincidence, or might his back or something else be bothering him? Rivera had a touchy hamstring in camp. Stay tuned.
In Petitti's case, the offense will likely return to its plan from the first six games of giving him chip help from backs and tight ends. Last week he went mostly solo, getting help on only two plays in the first half and on five overall. I don't think Dallas will go crazy and offer him the level of help he got in the Eagles game. Chike Okeafor is good, but he's not Jevon Kearse. Still, Petitti will get more help.
On the other side of the line, I think Tucker will get help on a need basis. Bert Berry is very good, but so is Grant Wistrom, and Tucker played well against him. One other player the Cowboys must account for is SLB Carlos Dansby. He gets to blitz a lot in the Cards scheme and makes the most of it.
Dallas must protect Drew Bledsoe better because his effectiveness is directly related to it. Bledsoe also needs some work on his form because he is showing some of the tunnel vision that has plagued him before. Seattle intercepted him twice, but could have gotten at least three more passes that Bledsoe forced into double coverage. Peerless Price will likely get into the mix more. He caught one pass for 19 yards last week and ran an end around. However, Dallas did not rely on its three WR packages as much as it had when Patrick Crayton was healthy.
Overall, I espect the Dallas game plans to be similar to those we've seen all year. Try to establish a balance between run and pass, take your shots down the field when you're outside your own 40. I think the run/pass mix will skew a little bit -- but only a little bit -- more towards the run. Dallas might also go more to screens. The offense has run one per game the past five games and each one has gone for big yards, though two were brought back by silly penalties against Larry Allen and Rivera. Arizona will likely bring the blitz, seeing Tucker and Petitti. This is one way to temper their aggressiveness. Another is to rely more on the draw that Julius Jones ran so well. When Dallas was in third and eight and nine last year Jones could be counted on to make the yardage most of the time. Dallas ran Barber draws twice last week. He made nine and eleven yards. Problem was, the downs were third and eleven and third and sixteen. If Dallas can avoid sacks early in series, this play can work again.
Prediction: The game will turn on two factors. First, on how well Dallas runs and secondly on how well it protects the ball. The Cardinals will give up sacks and the ball. They've done so in every game this year. They're one dimensional and the Dallas defense is probably the best they've faced this year. The defense might even get its first points of the season. If the running backs, Bledsoe and Keyshawn hold on to the football, Dallas should win.
But who can predict turnovers?
Dallas 24, Arizona 16