Cowboys must respond after bye week

The bye-week bullies have returned to work this week at Valley Ranch. The Cowboys have had tremendous success over the past few years when they aren’t forced to play on Sundays. 



Once again, Dallas (2-2) improved its position in the NFC East without lifting a finger. The Redskins (2-3) lost starting quarterback Robert Griffin III to a concussion and couldn’t recover against the Falcons. And the Eagles (3-2) were beaten on a last-second field goal by the Steelers. The Giants (3-2) held on for a win against the Cleveland Browns, but they certainly don’t look like world beaters at this point in the season. 



Unfortunately, the Cowboys won’t be able to stay home this weekend. They will head to Baltimore, where the Ravens have forged one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. They have won 20 of their past 21 games at home, and that’s why we shouldn’t put too much stock in how poorly Baltimore’s offense played Sunday in a 9-6 win in Kansas City. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Ravens finally decided this season that an aging defense couldn’t simply prop up a plodding offense week after week. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis remains one of the most inspirational players in the league, but he can’t cover as much ground as he used to. And safety Ed Reed’s also getting a little long in the tooth. He’s still solid against the pass, but he’s not nearly as physical when it comes to tackling. 



On Sunday at Arrrowhead Stadium, the Ravens actually allowed Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles to surpass 100 yards in the first half. That hadn’t happened to the Ravens since the immortal James Allen did it for the Bears in 1998. 



The Chiefs finished with 50 carries for 214 yards, which is about three games’ worth for the Cowboys this season. The Ravens made an adjustment at halftime Sunday to move their linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage and held Charles to 15 yards rushing in the second half. But at least the Cowboys know it’s not impossible to run the ball against the Ravens, who fell to 20th in the league against the run.

 

The lack of a running game has been one of several disappointments for the Cowboys this season. DeMarco Murray had a remarkable training camp and then had a big game in a Week 1 win over the New York Giants. But he’s basically been a non-factor in the past three games. The Cowboys are ranked 29th overall in rushing. They are churning out 67.8 yards per game, and only four other teams have averaged fewer attempts than the Cowboys’ 19.8. In the win over the Giants, Garrett showed a willingness to stick with the run even though it wasn’t successful in the first half. In recent weeks, the Cowboys have been quicker to abandon the run, thus exposing quarterback Tony Romo to more punishment (see Bucs game). It’s not like Romo’s taking as many hits as Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, but he’s not far behind. 



Another thing that’s killing the Cowboys is a lack of takeaways. That’s why their top-five ranking in overall defense is so fraudulent. That ranking is based on how many yards the team has allowed, not how much havoc it’s caused. The Cowboys have one interception this season while the Ravens have six. And the Cowboys have recovered three fumbles to the Ravens’ six. When you factor in Romo’s interception spree though four games, the Cowboys are minus-7 in turnover differential. Only the hapless Chiefs are worse with a staggering minus-15. 



This is probably the most distressing news of all for Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who constantly talks about protecting the ball and taking it away on defense. Players have said he’s obsessive about that stat, but it hasn’t exactly translated to the field.



“Taking care of the football and going to get the football, that’s Line 1 in this game and has been for a long, long time,” Garrett told reporters Monday. “You saw it all over the games this weekend. We have to do a better job of that going forward, taking care of the ball on offense and going to get the ball on defense.” 



That’s one of the main reasons the Cowboys committed huge resources this past offseason to free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne. They believed that having big, physical corners would both aid the pass rush and produce more interceptions. You will likely see Carr line up across from Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin on Sunday. The Ravens will try to establish the running game with Ray Rice, but they also love to send Boldin across the middle and try to get the ball downfield to Torrey Smith. The Eagles and Chiefs both had success jamming the Ravens receivers at the line of scrimmage. Smith has been explosive at times this season, but he only had three catches for 38 yards against the Chiefs. And backup receivers Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss were shut out in the game. 



Carr was embarrassed by how he played last Monday against Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, so he’ll be looking for a big bounceback game. Look for Carr and Claiborne to be very aggressive in jamming the Ravens receivers in an attempt to throw them out of rhythm. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has had his moments this season, but he’s still not the most accurate passer in the world. 



The Cowboys didn’t create enough pressure against Jay Cutler last Monday. That can’t happen against Flacco on Sunday. 



Recent history suggests the Cowboys don’t have much of a shot at winning in Baltimore. But for whatever reason, the Cowboys seem to be at their best when the expectations are low. 



And well … here we are.