COMMENTARY | There is strong buzz coming out of Valley Ranch. The Dallas Cowboys looked great in the preseason and with the opening game quickly approaching, the team is healthy and fully functional.
But as nice as it was to watch Dez Bryant and Tony Romo toy with cornerbacks, and see the defense force nine turnovers through the first four games, we have to remember the date on the calendar.
As you know, preseason stats mean very little and we've certainly fallen victim to the hype-train that rolls through Dallas at this time of the year. It's best to guard your optimism and remember that what happens in the preseason stays in the preseason.
That being said, the Cowboys have a friendly schedule in 2013 and the NFC East is completely up for grabs. According to Vegas Insider, they have a 25-1 shot at winning the Super Bowl. As do the Giants and the Redskins, with the Eagles falling to 60-1.
I'll reserve the Super Bowl talk until after Week 1 (we'll definitely know by then) and instead focus on something more pressing: winning the NFC East for the first time since 2009. In order for that to happen a lot of things have to go right.
Here are five that the Cowboys have struggled with last year and if corrected, could have them hosting Round 1 in January.
Flipping the Turnover Differential
The Cowboys have spent a lot of money on this defense to get the ball back to the offense. They've also spent a lot of money on the offense to keep that ball and drive it through the end zone. None of that panned out last year as they ranked 27th in turnover differential.
A big part of such a poor rating came as a result of Tony Romo's 19 interceptions. Obviously, we can't have that. But the defense, particularly the secondary, needs to improve on last year's measly seven interceptions (tied for last).
If they finish in the top-10 in this category, by limiting offensive mistakes and creating offensive opportunities, the Cowboys will be a hard team to stop.
Develop a Home Field Advantage
The last ten Super Bowl champions have had a combined home record of 62-18. Coincidence? Not likely. On average they won six home games, which is exactly where the Cowboys need to be in 2013.
Since replacing the old Cowboys Stadium with Jerry World, Romo and the 'Boys have struggled to find any sort of dominance in their own backyard. Their record of 17-15 at what is now AT&T Stadium doesn't provide any comfort of a home field advantage. I wrote at length about it last May (see reason No. 4). The importance of winning home games cannot be overstated.
The best way of turning things around is by beating the Giants, who have never lost at the new stadium, in the season opener. Such a victory would set the tone for the rest of the year. The formula is quite simple: beat your opponents on your turf and split road games. If the Cowboys can go 6-2 at home, the NFC East will be iced.
Run the Ball, and then Run the Ball, and then Run Play-Action
You're well aware of how bad the Cowboys were on the ground last year, finishing second to last in yards and attempts. But it's important to note that teams don't win games because they ran the ball. They run the ball because they're winning games. Simple clock management and protecting leads is what favors run heavy offenses
Of course, the key word in that formula is "lead", which is not something the Cowboys enjoyed much of last season. Still, we've heard the term balance thrown around a lot. With play calling duties shifting to Bill Callahan, it seems the offensive compass has been recalibrated to focus more on the ground game.
DeMarco Murray, physically, is the perfect running back. His combination of size and speed sets him apart from a good majority of the league. He also benefits from having a great set of hands, effectively making him a three-down back. Provided he's healthy, the Cowboys should have no problem acquiring leads and maintaining them by using Murray to close out games.
Same story, different year right? The hope, and part of the preseason hype, is that the offensive line might actually provide plenty of room for the backfield. Plus, it looks as if Murray has a capable backup in Lance Dunbar. Dunbar has enough speed and quickness to threaten the edges all while giving Murray time to catch his breathe. Therefore, the offensive game plan doesn't have to change much from personnel standpoint.
And once the backfield starts finding room, Romo can start using play-fakes to take advantage of greedy defenses. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys ran play-action only 11% of the time, ranking them dead last. In order to assert some dynamics in play-calling, they will have to keep defenses guessing and you do that by showing a multitude of different looks.
It's cliché because it works. Show run and pass; show pass and run.
Win the Battle of Field Position
One area of concern throughout the preseason has been special teams. Turnovers aside, this is a group that is ultimately going to determine the fate of starting field position. Last year, per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys offense ranked 19th with an average starting field position of 26.9.
That's not particularly bad, but it's not particularly good either. It goes without saying that short fields for offenses and long fields for defenses are reflected in the final score. If you want to minimize Romo's mistakes and maximize efficiency, then you need to put him in a position to succeed. You need to allow Murray room to run. I won't try to frame special teams as the reason for wins and losses, but ten yards in one direction or the other is the difference between field goals and touchdowns. And that's applicable to both sides of the ball.
Pressure the QB
The Cowboys have been quite good at getting pressure quarterbacks over the years. Even through last season's slew of injuries they still graded out as Pro Football Focus's fourth best pass rushing defense.
I'm listing it here because it's an area of concern going forward. The transition to a 4-3 defense works in the favor of the playmakers Dallas already has on its roster. But it also highlights the issue of depth on their defensive line.
DeMarcus Ware will thrive from the defensive end position, as will Anthony Spencer assuming he can maintain his health. The big question is the interior of the line, where Monte Kiffin made his money in years past, and whether or not they have the personnel to collapse pockets and sustain inevitable injuries.
Keep in mind this division features two exceptionally fast quarterbacks in Robert Griffin and Michael Vick, and a terrific pocket passer in Eli Manning. The onus will be on Rod Marinelli in prepping his defensive line to generate enough pressure all while benefiting from coverage sacks. It's hard enough to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, mix in a little read-option and we'll see just how good the Cowboys front four is.
They slipped to 20th in sacks last year with 34, but it's not necessarily sacks that separate a good defense from a great one. Sacks are nice but constant QB pressure is what creates turnovers. Again, it's a simple formula that ties right into bullet point number one: pressure the quarterback into tough throws and let the secondary do the rest.
Tying It All Together
No one can argue against the fact that the Cowboys have a Super Bowl caliber roster. They have the talent to compete with, or completely overwhelm any team in the league. Now they just have to do the things successful football teams do. They need to cause turnovers, not commit them. They need pressure the quarterback on defense and protect him on offense. They need to run the ball when they have the lead and not completely abandon it when they don't. They need to win the battle of field position and the battle of the line of scrimmage.
Clearly, the same logic can be applied to every team in the NFL. I'm not breaking new ground here and my reasoning is obvious. But in a division that's as evenly ranked as the NFC East, any advantage, regardless of how slight, is the difference between a Week 17 playoff game and a Week 17 bye.
Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football. Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema.
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