The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their first victory in almost a month when they travel to Charlotte to take on the struggling, yet well-rested, Carolina Panthers Sunday. The good news is that with Philadelphia off and Washington and the Giants playing each other, only one other NFC East team will win this week.
Here's how the last-place Cowboys can ensure that they get a "W" themselves in order to gain some ground within the division.
Run it up the freakin' gut
No more horsing around. Sure, DeMarco Murray won't be available, but Felix Jones played well last week, and Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar weren't bad either. The Cowboys can't panic and ditch the running game, as they've been known to do. Not having Murray would give them a good excuse to fall back into that habit.
They capitalized on a weak and depleted Baltimore front seven last week, and there's no reason they can't do that again here. Center Phil Costa looks like a new man since returning from injury, and left guard Nate Livings is really starting to excel as a run blocker. Mackenzy Bernadeau is still struggling, but the interior of the line is looking a lot better than it did a few weeks ago.
Carolina's run defense has been trampled on already by Pierre Thomas, Andre Brown, Michael Turner and Marshawn Lynch. Making matters worse, middle linebacker Jon Beason's hurt and will likely be replaced by struggling rookie Luke Kuechly Sunday. That'll make them even more vulnerable than they already are on runs up the middle.
Thus far in 2012, Football Outsiders ranks them 25th in the league at stopping such runs. Dallas hasn't been particularly strong running between the tackles, but that changed a fair bit against the Ravens. And Carolina's two starting interior defensive linemen—Ron Edwards and Dwan Edwards—have received negative ratings from Pro Football Focus nine times in 10 combined games this season.
The reality is that Tony Romo has made far too many mental mistakes this year and so have his receivers. They can't lose faith in those guys, but they have to realize that they probably won't lose this game, so long as they don't keep making costly mistakes on offense. They can avoid that and control the clock by running often.
This will make even more sense if Dez Bryant isn't able to go. He's questionable with a groin strain.
Focus on Steve Smith
Mainly because that's all Cam Newton seems to do. Smith has been targeted this season more than every other Carolina receiver combined, according to PFF. Newton's been stuck in a sophomore slump, and one of his biggest issues has been his failure to work through progressions.
It's possible Newton has made some adjustments and received some tips on the bye week and won't latch onto Smith as much this week, but Dallas should force him to prove that he can find other options in the passing game. That's what halftime adjustments are for, but early on, the key will be to focus on Carolina's most dangerous offensive weapon (besides maybe Newton himself).
The beautiful thing about how well Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are playing is that those two might be good enough to handle Carolina's rushing attack on their own. DeAngelo Williams is a mess and Jonathan Stewart doesn't get enough work from offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski anyway. Throw in the possibility that Anthony Spencer could be back and they should be able to contain those two, limiting the damage Newton does with his legs.
Who should the Cowboys be most concerned with?
The one major risk associated with this approach is that focusing on Smith with frequent bracket coverage would give Newton a lot of chances to go to his safety valve, Greg Olsen. Olsen's caught 22 of the 29 passes thrown his way this season (per PFF), and the Cowboys could be had in the slot.
Dallas is missing Barry Church, who performed well early on against tight ends in coverage but is now lost for the season. Now they're shorthanded at safety and will have to commit their linebackers to keeping Newton from running wild.
They haven't faced a lot of top-tier tight ends this season, but Kellen Davis, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson combined for eight catches on 10 targets against them the last two weeks (and Davis dropped a pass, too).
But if I'm the Cowboys, I'll sacrifice some completions to Olsen in order to avoid big plays elsewhere. So long as the offensive game plan holds up and you don't make too many sloppy mistakes, there's no way Greg Olsen can single-handedly beat you.