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Cowboys - Chiefs Preview

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Dallas will work to avoid a three game losing steak when it hosts Kansas City tomorrow in the CBS national game (3:15 CST). The Chiefs duel will close out the Cowboys tour of the AFC West, which stands at 1-2, with gut-wrenching losses to Oakland and Denver tempering the pleasure of a close win over the Chargers.

When Kansas City Has the Ball:

The Chiefs present many of the same problems that New York did. The balance power in the running game with speed in the passing game. OC Al Saunders learned his craft as the receivers coach for Mike Martz when the Rams truly were "the greatest show on turf." He prefers a wide open attack that challenges the secondary deep and hammers the front seven short, making it difficult for both levels of defense to assist one another.

For the last few years he's had the ideal weapon for igniting the Chiefs' rocket. RB Priest Holmes was a Marshall Faulk clone, a combination of speed, elusiveness, power and great hands. Holmes is out for this match, having been on injured reserve for several weeks. Larry Johnson has replaced Holmes, with little noticable dropoff in performance. The third year vet has five consecutive 100 yard rushing games since Holmes went down. Johnson is not the receiver Holmes is, but he's a bruising, upright runner with deceptive speed who can get to a defense's perimeter.

Stopping Johnson will be DC Mike Zimmer's top priority. Johnson runs behind one of the NFL's biggest and best offensive lines. Where the Denver line Dallas faced two games ago relies on quickness and agility the Kansas City line is more physical. LT Willie Roaf leads them. The Chiefs offense struggled in mid-season when Roaf was injured and has posted four consecutive 30+ point games since he's returned. Saunders prefers to run Johnson left, behind Roaf and LG Brian Waters. They'll present a challenge for starting RE Greg Ellis, SILB Scott Shanle and ROLB Demarcus Ware. Dallas started rookie Chris Canty at RE last week against the Giants big line. Don't be surprised if he, Jason Ferguson and Marcus Spears start again, as Dallas tries to put its biggest line out to match the Chiefs' muscle.

Kansas City is an equal opportunity runner. Saunders may run Johnson more left, but he gets plenty of action to his right, especially inside behind RG Will Shields. Bradie James will have a challenge in stalemating Shields.

A second Zimmer headache will be schemes to slow down TE Tony Gonzalez. His speed, size and skill as a receiver is well known. But Saunders uses Gonzales' speed to aid the running game. Gonzalez is not the best in-line blocker, but he can handle defenders on the run, in space. So Saunders will frequently split him out wide, pulling linebacker support away from the line. He will then run Johnson to Gonzalez' side, utilitzing the best of his TE's blocking skills and also creating a natural crease for Johnson that safeties have to rush and fill.

With defenses so occupied in the middle by Johnson and Gonzalez, QB Trent Green can run an effective play action game to a trio of fast receivers. Eddie Kennison, Sammie Parker and Dante Hall are not on par with the Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Hakim trio Saunders coached at St. Louis, but they are fast and keep secondaries honest. It therefore benefits the Cowboys that Anthony Henry is finally ready to return after injuring his groin against Arizona. Aaron Glenn has also practiced this week and appears ready to play following his ankle sprain versus the Giants. These three give Dallas the talent to play the Chiefs man up deep and let Zimmer mix and match fronts to keep Gonzalez and Johnson in check.

When Dallas Has the Ball:
The book has been established against Dallas. Stack the line, slow the Dallas run and tee off on Drew Bledsoe before he can beat you deep. The Kansas City defenders were crowing earlier this week that they were ready to attack Bledsoe, showing little respect for the line.

That game plan will play to Chiefs' DC Gunther Cunningham's tendencies. He likes to blitz and blitz frequently. In formation speak, his defense looks a lot like Dallas'. He mixes four man looks and 3-4 looks. The Chiefs do this partly out of necessity, since their line lacks depth. It does have some size, with lineman Lional Dalton and Ryan Sims both weighing 315 lbs. End Jared Allen is only 265, however and Denver had a good deal of success running to his side. I can't speak for the Cowboys' effectiveness, but I do expect them to locate Allen and run at him as well.

Kansas City spent heavily this offseason to improve it's linebacking and secondary corps, signing Kendrell Bell, trading for CB Patrick Surtain and selecting Derrick Johnson with its top draft pick. Bell and Johnson add size and athleticism, but the K.C. secondary is vulnerable to passes. It may have been the heavy weather padding he wore last week, but Bell looks heavier and slower to my eyes. The Broncos working him over on shallow crosses by tight ends and WR Rod Smith. I look for Keyshawn Johnson to get a lot of early work against the shallow line of K.C.'s zones, testing Bell and the Chiefs safeties.

The other major objective, as it has been for weeks, it finding protection schemes that can keep Bledsoe upright. K.C.'s pass defense, as you have no doubt heard by now, ranks 30th in the NFL. CBs Surtain and Eric Warfield have been worked over all year. SS Sammy Knight is known for his smarts, but has never been the fastest player around. Terry Glenn will get space to run tomorrow. The question is whether his QB will have the time to find him. Dallas must also get Patrick Crayton incorporated into its game plan quickly. He was near invisible last week. With Peerless Price gone, he becomes that much more important.

Given the line's troubles, I nevertheless look for them to take some shots at the Chiefs early. A couple of well executed throws in the first couple of series could back off the certain K.C. blitzes and give Bledsoe more opporunites to scan the field. OC Sean Payton might also throw more to RB Julius Jones. Jones gained 88 yards receiving last week and was Dallas' most effective receiving weapon, by far.

Overall, I think the general dynamics of the game plan will remain the same. Dallas will try to hold the ball and methodically move down the field, to keep the ball away from the Chiefs' offense. The one change may be more first down throws, and not of the play action variety. Teams no longer respect the play action fakes and come after Bledsoe. He should drop as deep into the pocket as quickly as possible.

Prediction:
I'm bullish on the Cowboys' defense. They've stopped every major challenge in the past eight games, from the Giants, Broncos, Seahawks and Eagles' highly regarded attacks. They've got the beef to match up with Kansas City and the depth to wear them down. The return of Anthony Henry means the Cowboys secondary can match up with the Chiefs receivers. In fact, I think the Cowboys own a significant edge here. Henry's size will also help against the running game. Dallas has missed his size and fearlessness; he's been a very effective backup to Damarcus Ware as the rookie has learned the ropes.

Same song, next verse. The game will turn on the offense. More specifically on the offensive line. Dallas has matchup advantages against the Chiefs' secondary, but will the maligned line, which was overmatched against the Giants, give Drew Bledsoe enough time to find his receivers? And can Bledsoe avoid the one crippling mistake that has entered his game lately. It seems we can count on one unforced interception, or untimely fumble per game.

A long time ago, I found a book by Jimmy the Greek, in which he explained how he became a renowned gambler. One of his cardinal rules was to follow streaks. Many gamblers, he said, always bail on potential winning streak because they think this is the week the winner or the loser will end the streak. Stick with the trend until it dies and you'll prosper.

I've got nothing riding on this game except my rooting interest, but I'm going by the Greek's rule. The offense has been in a slow and steady decline, and until it shows it has fixed the problem, I'm not giving it the benefit of the doubt. I expect hard play and a show of pride after last week's embarrassment, but I think the problems on the o-line go beyond pride.

Kansas City 20, Dallas 17