The Cowboys will try to build on the momentum of their unlikely comeback win against the Eagles when they face Detroit this Sunday. The Lions will also be working on a winning streak, having beaten the Cardinals convincingly at home.
When the Lions Have the Ball
Did the light finally go on for Joey Harrington last week? The young quarterback had his best game of the year, riddling the Cardinals for three touchdowns in an impressive 29-21 win. Or was the game just a will-o-the-wisp, courtesy of the weak Arizona secondary? Most evidence suggests that it was an aberration. Consider Harrington's last six starts:
That's an unimpressive 2-4 win-loss record, with a 62.2 average rating. The Cardinals game was the only one in which Harrington topped the 70.0 mark, better known around here as the Quincy Carter line. His worst performance came in Detroit's biggest win this year, a thrashing of the Ravens.
Harrington is not the only sub-par member of the Lions' offense. Second year RB Kevin Jones, for all his talent, has a meager 3.2 yards-per-carry average, suggesting that the Lions' line is struggling even more the Dallas'.
The Cowboys were outmuscled last week by an Eagles' offense that cannot run the ball effectively. Dallas played most of the game rushing four and playing in zones, trying to contain the Eagles' passing game. Their passivity was induced by Donovan McNabb's running ability; the Cowboys rarely blitzed, as the wounded McNabb still has above average rushing skills.
There will be no such concern with Harrington. He has a reputation for being one of the most skittish QBs in the game. In addition, his accuracy has always been questionable. Expect Dallas to crowd the line and pressure Harrington early, mid-game and late. If CB Anthony Henry is back from his groin injury the Cowboys will likely blitz more than they have all year. And that will make Roy Williams a happy man. He was unleashed in the Arizona game and rattled Cards' QB Josh McCown. McCown is a big tough guy, however, and he stood in and took the abuse, hurling a long TD pass in the process. Harrington is not the gunslinger McCown is. If Williams and his friends can hit him early, he could make like Santa and hand the secondary some early Christmas gifts.
Harrington has not been helped by his coaches' play calling. When he was at San Francisco, Steve Mariucci outlined his philosophy as a merger of the West Coast offense's passing game with an offset-I formation power running attack, with lots of screens mixed in. (In fact, this reads a lot like the offense Dallas is running right now.) Mariucci had some of the best running attacks in the NFL his first years with the 49ers, when Garrison Hearst was his back. Mariucci has Kevin Jones in his backfield now, but his play calling of late shows a definite case of Andy Reid disease. Mariucci has been quick to give up on the run if it does not succeed out of the box. The first two to three series of the game will be key for the Cowboys; if they can keep Jones from breaking any long runs and gaining a rhythm, they can spook Mariucci into going heavy towards the pass.
When Harrington does throw, he will have WR Roy Williams as his best weapon. Williams has been injured some, but has big play ability. He has been erratic, however, piling up impressive stats one game and looking pedestrian the next. This probably has more to do with Harrington and the 0-line's suspect play than it does with his game.
When Dallas has the Ball
The Cowboys had a horrible time trying to run last week against and inspired Philadelphia front that stacked eight and nine men at the line regularly. The Cowboys might have more trouble getting untracked this week, at least if they try to hammer inside. The heart of the Lions good young defense is its massive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson. A disappointment at all his previous stops, the Big Daddy Wilkinson has found a niche at the noseguard in Detroits over and undershifting 4-3. He will give C Al Johnson a handful. Do not be surprised if bigger C Andre Gurode gets some rotations against the Big Daddy. Wilkinson's nose play allows the 345 lb. Rogers single blocking. It will be fun to watch Rogers go head on against the Cowboys guards, especially LG Larry Allen.
I think Dallas will attack Detroit the same way it did Arizona. The Cardinals stacked their line, hoping to slow the Cowboys inside running game and Dallas outflanked them, with tosses, sweeps and quick screens to the running backs. Julius Jones is listed as the starter this week and that makes sense, as Dallas will need more speed to probe the flanks of Detroits' line. The Cowboys will have size matchups on the edges; Lions ends Cory Reddins and James Hall are both bulked up rush ends in college. Redding, for example is listed at 290, but he played at 265 while at Texas. Even in his puffed up state he gives up 40 lbs. to LT Torrin Tucker. Hall gives up 55 to RT Rob Petitti.
The Lions could try to blitz Drew Bledsoe, but their secondary lacks the size and depth of Philadelphia's. Lions' corners Dre Bly and Antonio Bryant are 5'9" and 5'10" respectively and stays away from extensive press coverage. Look for Keyshawn Johnson to get a lot of work on crossing routes, where he can use his size to box out his smallish opponents.
Also look for Jason Witten to get back into the mix. His play has been erratic, part because he blocks more to protect OTs Tucker and Petitti. But he has also been slowed by consistent double teams. He should have more space to run this week, he will finally play a team that uses a lot of zone coverage.
The Cowboys will also have to consider some changes in the way they use Terry Glenn. The Lions corners are small, but they are also fast. They tend to play softer coverage to prevent the long ball. Glenn has become a bellwehter for the Cowboys offense. When he gets off to quick starts, the offense does too. When he disappears for two and a half to three quarters, so do the Cowboys' points. I look for Sean Payton to use Glenn on more timing routes, the skinny posts, quick hithes, flanker screens and deep ins that can beat loose coverage.
Prediction: There have been speculation in the threads that this represents a trap game, with the Broncos lurking next Thursday. I'm not convinced. For starters, the Cowboys have no business being complacent. They were outplayed for much of the Eagles game and their coach will certainly let them know it. Second, they have only strung two subpar games together once this year, when they played the Giants and the Seahawks. Both of those teams had something to do with Dallas' performaces.
I think the Cowboys will play better Sunday. They've been a good home team, going 3-1 in Texas Stadium. The Lions, on the other hand, have been a poor road team, posting a 1-3 record. Detroit's lone road win was a 13-10 squeaker against Cleveland. What's more, Detroit has not fared well against good teams. The Lions four wins have come over Green Bay, Baltimore, Arizona and Cleveland. The Packers, Ravens and Cardinals are all 2-7. The Browns are 3-6. Steve Mariucci's guys are 0-4 against teams with winning records.
I think they're just a few hours from 0-5. The Lions defense is good and could give the Cowboys offense some trouble. But if they don't hold Dallas under 14 points they won't be able to win the game, as the Lions rank 26th in scoring. We're likely to be reminded tomorrow that the Cardinals can make any team look good.
Dallas 27, Detroit 14