When you get to this point of an NFL season, injury always plays a factor in how a team performs. Last week, the Dallas Cowboys battled an Indianapolis Colts team that has been battered with injuries. Injuries are a part of the game and the really good teams manage to overcome them. The Dallas Cowboys are not a really good team this season, but over the past month, under Jason Garrett, they have been a really good team. They are a Roy Williams fumble away from being a perfect 4-0.
Dallas has had their fair share of injuries this year. Early on, it was along the offensive line, specifically Kyle Kosier and Marc Colombo. At that time, the Cowboys weren't able to overcome those injuries and lost games they should have won. Then came the big blow, Tony Romo going down with a broken clavicle. At first, the Cowboys struggled to replace Romo. Jon Kitna had his moments shortly after taking over, but things were uneven until Jason Garrett took over. Now, Kitna is playing great football. The Cowboys also suffered a rash of injuries along the defensive line, and more recently, among the inside linebackers. The Cowboys have had varying success in overcoming these injuries.
This week, they have a couple of significant players that will not play the game, besides Tony Romo. Marion Barber is almost certainly out, and Dez Bryant is definitely out. In their absence, it's imperative that two players step up and play big. One is a replacement player, the other is a starter that needs to re-boot his season.
With Marion Barber out last week, the Cowboys turned to someone who had been nearly forgotten this season. Tashard Choice has been on the Cowboys roster for three years. Late in the 2008 season, the Cowboys needed help at running back and turned to Tashard. He responded with a month's worth of solid work. In 2009, Choice wasn't given much opportunity, but did well when he got hi chances.
Here in 2010, with Marion Barber out against the Colts, Tashard got his chance once again, and he really produced. Choice out-shined his running back teammate Felix Jones and looked like a feature back. He ran with authority and vision, he made the right cuts and always fell forward when being tackled. He looked like Marion Barber but with more speed and agility. He looked like Felix Jones but with more power and strength.
He gets an opportunity again this week. Much like last week, the Cowboys would love to control the game on the ground and keep the ball away from Michael Vick and all his weapons on the Eagles offense. Dallas would like to keep the ball on the ground to avoid interceptions, something the Eagles defense does quite well. Philadelphia leads the league with 20 interceptions on the year. They're an aggressive defense that takes advantage of mistakes to turn the ball over. The Cowboys will have little room for error in this game, so Tashard Choice can be one of the key pieces to a victory. By keeping the ball on the ground and grinding out yards, the Cowboys can keep the Eagles offense off the field, they can shorten the game and they can stay away from costly interceptions.
Eventually, though, the Cowboys will have to take to the air. This week, they do that without rookie sensation Dez Bryant. The Cowboys don't need to look to their bench for help in replacing Bryant, they need to look on the field. Miles Austin needs to perform like he was paid to do. Austin started out the year on fire, 20 catches in the first two games and over 140 yards in each. Since then, he's only had two games where he broke 100 yards receiving or had more than four catches in a game. He's had five games with just two catches apiece, and two games with three catches. This is not the kind of production expected of a number one receiver who just received a huge contract. In his defense, he has scored a few touchdowns recently, including the huge end-around run against New Orleans. But we need consistency, not one-off brilliance.
Coming off a monster, break-out 2009 season, much was expected of Austin this year. So far, he hasn't lived up to the billing. On Sunday, he needs to step up and perform like he's paid to do, like he has the talent to do.
If Choice and Austin can make their presence known on Sunday, the Cowboys have a great shot at winning.