If you can stand to do so, please hearken back to the second game of the 2010 season, when - although none of us could have envisioned it - the Cowboys were en route to an ignominious 1-7 start. Two games in, Cowboys Nation was filled with hope; Dallas had won the division the year before thanks to a defense that gelled late in the season. It was led by free-agent linebacker Keith Brooking and punctuated their improvement by pitching back-to-back shutouts.
After suffering an embarrassing (and flukey) loss in the Nation's Capitol in game one, the Cowboys looked to even their record at home against the Bears. The Cowboys defense stymied the Bears first three drives, harassing Jay Cutler and limiting the Monsters of the Midway to four yards and three straight three-and-outs. On the Bears fourth drive, however, Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz began to pick on the middle of the Cowboys defense, specifically Dallas' two inside linebackers, Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who proved to be liabilities in coverage.
After a 19-yard completion to Devin Hester, trailed by Brooking, Cutler hit tight end Greg Olson for a 39-yard touchdown and a 10-7 Bears lead. On the afternoon, Chicago running backs and tight ends caught 13 of Cutler's 21 completions, amassing 118 of their 270 passing yards. Although Chicago went 1-11 on third downs, they were able to find enough big gains in the middle of the field to sustain scoring drives and eked out a 27-20 victory.
This script was echoed at San Diego a couple of weeks ago. The Chargers' initial drive was a three-and-out in which Phillip Rivers sought out his wideouts, Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown. On their next possession, after a somewhat miraculous 31-yard completion conversion to Allen on third and eight, Rivers began to target the Cowboys linebackers, hitting Gates over the middle (covered by Sean Lee) and, then, the wheel route to Danny Woodhead, who beat Bruce Carter to the end zone for a 26-yard score.
In 2010, the Cowboys organization knew that Brooking and James' days were numbered; how else to explain the trade-up for Penn St. standout Sean Lee in the 2010 draft's second round? Certainly, by the time they nabbed North Carolina's Bruce Carter the following April, it was evident that the team was focused on upgrading the position with younger, faster, more talented players. Last year, in that brief window when Carter and Lee were finally on the field together, it appeared that the problem had been solved. Indeed, as we fretted about the team last offseason, linebacker was one of the few positions that allowed us to sleep at night.
But things have changed, it seems. Last Sunday, Monte Kiffin's boys surrendered 221 yards to backs and tight ends; the previous week in San Diego, they gave up a staggering 238 yards to "underneath" receivers. While Lee and Carter are by no means responsible for all these yards, teams are piling up big gains in the zones we though they'd patrol tightly. The two-week totals? In games four and five, Dallas allowed 38 receptions to backs and tight ends for a staggering 459 yards.
In 2010, Martz showed the rest of the league how to exploit the Cowboys' defense. The previous season, Brooking and James had been proud, old warriors in the middle of Wade Phillips' 3-4. Now they looked merely old, repeatedly trailing behind backs, tight ends and wideouts running crossing patterns. From that point on, rival offensive coordinators began to exploit the two greybeards (as well as safety Alan Ball); Cowboys fans are still haunted by the memory of Dallas linebackers trailing receivers helplessly and of short passes turned into medium-to-large gains.
NFL coordinators are a cruel bunch; their job description is simple: find a defense's weakness and exploit it mercilessly. In 2010, after Martz showed the rest of the league the Cowboys' defense's soft underbelly, other teams followed suit, exposing their weak spots: Brooking, James and Ball. It would be foolhardy for us to expect that, after two games worth of tape showing Bolts and Broncos running free in the underneath zones, we won't see other teams do the same thing. And then do it again, until the Cowboys stop it.
At the end of the 2010 campaign, it was hard not to see Chicago's initial touchdown drive as a real turning point - a sequence wherein a line-backing unit in whom Cowboys fans held so much confidence was shown to be unable to compete. To me, the burning question is: might we see the Chargers first scoring drive as a similar moment that encapsulates a season's woes? After what transpired against the Broncos, I'd be inclined to think so.
The beautiful aspect of a long season, however, is that players have an opportunity - often multiple chances - to rewrite the narratives that crop up in the first few games. This Sunday, against Washington, they'll have their first chance. I'll be watching closely.
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