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The injury report coming out of Dallas highlights a major concern this team has had since training camp: depth at defensive line.
Starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff has yet to play a snap in 2012, forcing backup Josh Brent into action. It’s unclear whether Ratliff will be making his debut in the Cowboys’ home opener.
Veteran Kenyon Coleman is doubtful, and Marcus Spears missed practice on Wednesday, leaving only four healthy defensive linemen.
Getting pressure up front has been a problem for this group and now it’s going to be even more difficult given their health. We’re going to see a lot of rookie Tyrone Crawford Sunday. If there is a silver lining in this mess, it’s that the Cowboys are going to find out sooner than later just how much value they’re going to get from their third-round pick.
Thankfully, they won’t have to worry about their cornerbacks. With Michael Jenkins practicing in full, and Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne healthy and playing well, this group shouldn’t have much trouble taking care of the likes of Tampa's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
That’s not to say that getting pressure on quarterback Josh Freeman isn’t important. But the focus is going to be on stopping the run. Rookie Doug Martin is off to a good start and even if LeGarrette Blount is slipping down the depth chart, he’s still the kind of big, physical running back this defensive line has trouble with. (See the 4.7 yards-per-carry Marshawn Lynch gashed them for on his way to 122 yards and a touchdown.)
It’ll be interesting to see how Rob Ryan handles this situation.
Ryan backed off on the blitz last week and it worked against him. This week he doesn’t have a healthy crew, so we’re not sure if he has the talent on the field to dial up pressure with any success. It makes me wonder if he’ll entertain the idea of using four down linemen instead of three. Putting another body up front certainly can’t hurt.
Whatever the case, expect the defense to be a big factor in the final outcome Sunday.
We’d like to say that Romo and his offense are good enough to win, regardless, but it’s not ideal to put that kind of pressure on him—much like the way the Giants D put so much pressure on Eli Manning, who needed 510 yards and 25 fourth-quarter points to avoid an upset loss against Tampa Bay.
That’s a situation the Cowboys have to avoid in this game. And it starts with how well the defensive line plays.