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Helping Tony Romo succeed on Sunday

Going on the road and playing a defense like the Carolina Panthers is not the ideal way for a QB to make his first start. The Panthers defensive line is no pushover - far from it - they are one of the most dangerous lines in the league. Julius Peppers has 8 sacks on the year and is capable of single-handedly disrupting the opposing team's offense. Tony Romo is going to receive a baptism by fire on Sunday.

Given that this is Romo's fourth year in the Cowboys organization it's inaccurate to call him a rookie QB, but using the term inexperienced fits nicely. Not only that, but for the first time he will understand what it means to be "the guy" and the pressure that comes along with it. Every play in some ways belongs to the quarterback, whether it's as simple as getting the snap secured and making a good handoff to the RB, all the way to reading a defense on a critical 3rd down play and making the right throw to the right receiver. There's no place to hide for an NFL QB during a game.

So how can the Cowboys best take of advantage of Tony Romo's role in the offense? There are a few things they can do to give him the best chance at succeeding. I would start with Julius Peppers. The Cowboys should go into the game with the idea that the one guy they won't let beat them is Peppers. This means giving RT Marc Colombo plenty of help all game long. The Cowboys need to sacrifice a TE or a RB on most passing plays to help contain Peppers. Mike Rucker is a very good defensive end and will give Flozell Adams trouble, but I would rather have Romo deal with avoiding Rucker than deal with avoiding Peppers.  

Next, I would move the pocket regularly and run some designed QB draws for Romo. I'm not suggesting turning Romo into a running QB, but run 3 or 4 draws throughout the game, just enough to make the Panthers defense think before pinning their ears back and trying to feast on Romo in the pocket. That little bit of indecision by the Panthers line could be enough to give Romo a moment of extra time. Also, roll the pocket on occasion. The Cowboys have a play they run every game where Bledsoe rolls to his right and hits Terry Glenn on an out pattern - last year they ran it to Keyshawn. Take advantage of this type of play to keep the Panthers guessing as to where Romo will be on any given play. It also helps the blocking scheme because the Dallas linemen all know they need to block down in one direction. They also have a bootleg play off of play-action that has both TE's dragging across the field. Anything that moves Romo around and keeps the Panthers from rushing straight to a point in the backfield will enhance Romo's chance of succeeding.

Take a page from the Bengals playbook last week. In the first half, of the Pantehrs/Bengals game, the Bengals tried to run their regular offense, which includes long passing routes. They couldn't provide Palmer enough time for the routes to open up and for him to accurately throw to his receivers. In the second half, they did a much better job of taking advantage of the short passing game. Dallas needs to understand that short routes will probably be the ticket to victory in this game. Trust that Owens and Witten can help move the chains after catching quick slants, hitches, crossing patterns, etc. The last thing Dallas wants to do is face 3rd and long plays. The Panthers defense excels on 3rd down, if they know you have to pass you are vulnerable.

Finally, let JJ and MB3 do a lot of the work. The Panthers defense allows 115 yards rushing per game with a healthy 4.0 yards per attempt. Dallas needs to think run first and stick with it even if it doesn't produce big results right away. The Bengals stuck with it last week and managed to take control of the clock by running the ball in the second half. Dallas can't afford a lot of "3 and outs" and putting a tired defense back on the field.

Overall, I don't think the Cowboys coaching staff will limit the playbook because of Romo. More likely they will substitute in plays that take advantage of Romo's natural ability and they will toss out some of the more high-risk plays. If I'm coaching the Cowboys on Sunday, I would run the ball often, move the pocket around to slow down the pass rush, call a lot of short patterns to avoid dangerous situations in the pocket and to avoid 3rd and long situations. I would also double-team Julius Peppers as often as I could.
If Andre Gurode is snapping the ball better in practice this week, the shotgun could be another advantage for Romo. Finally, the Cowboys haven't utilized their backs in the passing game enough this year. Let's get JJ and MB3 out on screens and passes in the flat and see what they can do.

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