It's been two very long weeks without Dallas Cowboys football after the season was (at least for now) saved with the big win in Houston. The Cowboys enter this weekend facing another tough game against a deceptively good Tennessee Titans team with the hope of getting back to .500 in the standings and resetting themselves after a very frustrating start to the season.
It's a bit of an odd feeling in Dallas this weekend as the Dallas Cowboys have taken a temporary step down from the big stage with the Texas Rangers dominating in the playoffs. Local radio has barely mentioned the Cowboys in the past few days and right now the only real mentions of this weekend's game have to do with the parking situation that is going to exist on Sunday.
You have to believe this shifting of focus is nothing but good for the Cowboys. Sure, the media hordes are still converging on Valley Ranch but for the first time in a very long time the local pressure on this team has been lifted -- however slightly that might be. This is still a big game for the Cowboys and a loss here will have the vultures descending once upon the team; a win proves what we all believe, that the Cowboys are much better than their current record would indicate.
After the jump, keys to the game for the Cowboys against the Titans in a big (yet overshadowed) game at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Maintain momentum and build on the intensity
The Dallas Cowboys didn't do anything drastically different against Houston compared to what happened against Washington and Chicago. There wasn't any crazy coaching philosophy change that sparked this team or a special gameplan built specifically to max out the Cowboys potential and go all in for one big game in September.
What happened was that the Dallas Cowboys were woken up by two horrible losses and the players finally were able to put aside the expectations for the season and focus on nothing but the task at hand. The offense was crisp, the defense was spectacular and the special teams had actually started to look decent. The Cowboys played like a team that had its back against the wall and wasn't going to let a promising season slip away after just two games.
The big worry, of course, was whether the bye had come at the absolute worst time. Would the break in the season halt any momentum that the Cowboys had built after the win and would they be able to sustain it after taking two weeks off from playing in the NFL. The concern is valid and for the Cowboys to come out of this weekend with any hope of the postseason still alive, the team is going to have to find some way to get over the break in action right when things were at their best.
The Cowboys are at their best when everyone expects them to fail.When their backs are against the wall this team is able to dial up the intensity, actually execute the plays and takes the field with a purpose of playing inspired football. It's this sense of urgency and intensity that must carry over through the bye week.
Continue to build success with the run
The Titans have a good defense but it's not as great as it's been in past seasons, yet it is certainly better than the defense the Cowboys faced in Houston two weeks ago. Through the first three weeks of the season no team passed the ball more than the Cowboys and while they certainly had success through the air the NFL has suddenly seen pass-happy teams not winning as much as in the past.
Against Houston the Cowboys were able to strike as much balance as possible between the run and the pass. Garrett didn't necessarily call more running plays; the difference here was that the running plays were just more effective in the past. There are some in the media saying that no matter what, the Cowboys must be dedicated to pounding the ball -- even if it's not working. While I understand that sentiment, it's impossible to say the Cowboys should run the ball over and over again if it isn't effective.
The key is for the Cowboys to continue to find success with the pass by building a running game early against the Titans. Don't become one-dimensional and let this defense get a good read for what you are planning. The Titans are aggressive and the Cowboys should be able to use that to their advantage; counter plays, delayed draws and shotgun draws should all find success on Sunday.
Force the Titans to become one-dimensional
Much has been made of the Titans' "duel threat" in the running game and how the Cowboys will be able to contain both Chris Johnson and Vince Young on the ground. The reality is that while he is still dangerous, Young does not run the ball nearly as much as in the past (less than ten rushes this season through four games) and the Titans lean heavily on Johnson to provide the running threat.
The Titans will continue to pound the ball with their speedy running back all throughout the game, even if it isn't working, as he is just one small seam and one cut away from reaching the second level of the defense taking off for a 60 yard touchdown. Just one play is all he needs to break open a close game and usually that one big play immediately opens up their running game for the rest of the day.
The key for the Cowboys is to be able to shut down Johnson without completely selling out to stop the run. The Cowboys must find a way to stop the running game with seven or eight in the box as the Cowboys cannot afford to let him slip past that first layer of the defense with a lone safety for help. More importantly, taking out the running game (and building a lead) will force the Titans to air the ball out more than they want to.
What can't happen in that situation is for the Cowboys to just pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. Over aggression against this offense is a recipe for disaster as Johnson is just as big a threat as a check down or a screen pass receiver as he is out of the backfield.
What the Cowboys must do is force Young to make more than one read. Play strong man coverage, don't allow him to hit his early receiver and force him to make mistakes through the air. He's had just a handful of 200 yard passing games in his career and there's no doubt that making the Titans pass the ball more than normal is a sign of their offense struggling.
Keep your cool and maintain discipline.
Above all this is the most important key to the game. The Cowboys already have an issue with penalties but the sort that Tennessee draws are the types that Dallas has actually had little trouble with this season. The Titans are an aggressive team that play through the whistle on every play. They are physical and while some might say they are a bit "dirty" there's no doubting that the Titans have become masterful at getting inside the heads of their opponents this season.
Where teams get in trouble is when they start to retaliate after the play. The Titans (especially the defense) will play as physical as possible all the way through the whistle, which usually results in the opponent getting fed up at some point and pushing or taking a swing at a defensive player. A few weeks ago we witnessed the New York Giants completely implode in this manner against the Titans, which was ultimately the key to the win for Tennessee.
The Cowboys have had troubles with penalties this season but none of have been of this nature. While we get upset with the false starts, holds and offsides calls ultimately the Cowboys have been a team that has held it together after the play is over. On Sunday, the Cowboys must be able to just walk away after the whistle and to ignore that extra shove or that especially dirty statement made by a defensive player. Walk away and let your play on the field do your talking for you.