The Dallas Cowboys are now trying to start a winning streak to keep their playoff hopes alive. Tony Romo has rekindled hope for the team and their fans, and the win over the Miami Dolphins showed just how important he is to the cause. But it takes a team to win. In all the excitement over the Jedi being back at quarterback, we should not overlook the rest of the Rebel Alliance that has to help win games.
These are some of the players that the team needs to have down the stretch.
The linebacking dynamic duo.
For the first time all season, the Cowboys had both Sean Lee and Rolando McClain playing together the way we had all hoped they would. Lee was just back from his second concussion of the season, and McClain appeared to have hit his stride in the previous game against Tampa Bay. Having to sit out his four-game suspension set him back, but now he is playing sideline-to-sideline with the speed and power we saw for much of 2014. Against the Carolina Panthers, they are perhaps the most important part of the defense. Carolina relies on their running game, and that includes Cam Newton. It is going to be up to Lee and McClain to keep him and the running game in check. Beyond this game, they will continue to be instrumental in helping the defense get off the field.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the season has been the performance of the defensive backs as a unit, but it looks like the team will have to survive at least one more game without the much-improved Morris Claiborne. Brandon Carr has been solid and Byron Jones is playing himself into consideration as a defensive rookie of the year candidate. While Claiborne is out, he is having to work at cornerback, which is less than optimal because he was really showing up at safety. Now the team has to have him and Tyler Patmon hold down the fort, while Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, and Jeff Heath really need to play their best. The team still needs to do a better job of taking the ball away, and no Dallas corner has gotten an interception this year. Thanksgiving would be an excellent time to put that streak at an end.
The pass rush.
The rushmen got three sacks against the Dolphins, because the game situation forced Ryan Tannehill into having to pass late when the sacks all came. That needs to happen against more opponents, and the sacks will take care of themselves. There has been some good pressure all season despite the relative dearth of sacks. It looks like Demarcus Lawrence, for one, is starting to come on. If he can provide an effective bookend for Greg Hardy the rest of the way, it will help greatly.
The offensive line.
After the dominating performance of last year, the play of the O line has been somewhat disappointing. However, having Romo back with his ability to diagnose defenses and to evade oncoming rushers should help them. They will need to do a better job this week, as the Panthers have a strong pass rush. The run blocking has come on a lot lately. One of the things that has started to emerge is that Darren McFadden is more effective in a man blocking scheme, and that has allowed the team to really capitalize on the physical talent of La'el Collins. Robert Turbin looks to be much more comfortable with the zone blocking scheme, and although this may tip what the team is doing with the ground game, it does give the Cowboys a way to utilize both approaches.
The running backs.
It looks like the Cowboys finally have an effective one-two punch in McFadden and Turbin, but they need the performance from last week to be more than a flash in the pan. It took too long to finally find the right combination of backs, and now they need to keep it working. Still to come may be the debut of Trey Williams, who could provide the kind of play out of the backfield they lost when Lance Dunbar was injured, but it is not certain when or if they will be ready to put him on the field.
Having Romo back looks to have largely fixed the issues here, as Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams both had a productive game against Miami, and Cole Beasley and Devin Street both had a key reception to keep drives alive. Jason Witten is never an issue, but the fact that Gavin Escobar contributed a couple of catches is very, very encouraging.
The special teams.
Returning punts and kicks have not gone well, but again, there was a flash in the Miami game as Lucky Whitehead made a heads up play to return a punt 18 yards in the game. They need much more. Dan Bailey and Chris Jones are both having very good years kicking, however, so that part of the game is in good shape.
So to sum up, the Cowboys need top performances from everyone, every week for the rest of the season. That is what happens when you dig yourself as deep a hole as the team is in now. Any breakdown in any facet of the game could end the slim chances that Dallas has. But no one expected them to be able to survive a seven game losing streak, and yet they still are alive in the dysfunctional NFC East. Everyone knows what is at stake. Now we see if they can all step up.