This season has been a major disappointment for the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Romo. They entered the year looking to put past failures behind them and capitalize on a talented roster. However, the overall inconsistent play of Romo and the offense has made it tough for this team to meet expectations.
Things for the Cowboys don’t get much easier as they must travel to take on the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. There are four main reasons why Romo’s struggles will continue this week. They include Atlanta’s ability to cover the tight end, Romo’s problems protecting the football, the injury to DeMarco Murray and the struggles of Doug Free.
Atlanta's Tight End Coverage
The Falcons feature a group of defenders including Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, who all do a good job defending the tight end. On the season, Atlanta’s defense is allowing only five receptions and 52 yards per game to the tight end.
The two clips below show a great look at how well the Falcons defend the tight end position. In the first clip, Stephen Nicholas maintains close coverage with Brent Celek over the middle of the field. This coverage provided Michael Vick with a very small passing window.
In the other clip, Moore reads the quarterback and quickly breaks on the football.
This is important because Tony Romo’s go-to target is Jason Witten. So far this season, Witten has caught 27 percent (51 receptions) of Romo’s 186 completions. His 18-catch 167-yard performance against the New York Giants is one of the main reasons Dallas was able to orchestrate a comeback attempt.
If Atlanta is able to take Witten out of the game, Romo will really struggle to get into a rhythm.
Any quarterback that fails to get into a rhythm is more likely to throw an interception. This has been a major problem for Romo this season, as he’s already thrown 13 interceptions in only seven games. Unfortunately for Romo, the Falcons are ranked third in the NFL with 10 interceptions on the season.
Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are two players that possess the ability to capitalize on a quarterback’s mistakes. Atlanta also has Asante Samuel who averaged nearly five interceptions a year during his 10-year career. Samuel is one of those aggressive cornerbacks who does a great job reading the quarterback’s eyes.
This clip shows just how quickly Moore can identify the play and break on the ball. He and the Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning three times in this game.
Because of the injury to DeMarco Murray, Romo will be forced to throw the ball more often. With Murray likely out of the lineup, the Cowboys will have to use the duo of Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner. Neither of these two are great options.
Jones is coming off a performance against the New York Giants where he average 1.5 yards per carry. Despite his raw talent, he has never been able to establish himself as a consistent playmaker.
The picture below is just one example of the poor decisions Jones makes as a runner. The longer arrow indicates an open hole, while the shorter one shows what direction Jones decided to head. This play resulted in a two-yard gain. If Jones made the proper read it would've gone for much more.
Tanner lacks the experience and overall talent level to make a major difference. Because of Jones’ ineffectiveness, Dallas will be willing to give Tanner a shot. However, this doesn’t mean he’ll succeed.
It doesn’t help that both will be running behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranks as the 25th best in the league. They actually rank them the 13th best run blocking unit, but their issues protecting the passer impacts the running game too.
Doug Free’s Struggles
Doug Free has been one of the worst offensive tackles in the entire NFL. He’s really struggling to provide Romo with a clean pocket. Free is being exploited by both the speed and power rush, which makes it difficult to give him help.
ESPN’s Dan Graziano had this to say regarding Free:
He's been a disaster. And it's not that he's struggling with the transition from left tackle to right tackle -- the team transitioned him there because he was so awful last year at left tackle. Again, the deal looked fine in the wake of Free's excellent 2010 season. But in retrospect, he's not an NFL left tackle and doesn't look much like an NFL right tackle either.
The Falcons will look to get John Abraham lined up against Free as much as possible. There’s no way he can handle Abraham in a one-on-one situation. Because of this issue, Dallas must use Witten and the running backs to help Free.
This picture below shows how the Philadelphia Eagles needed to keep Brent Celek in to help protect the quarterback.
This is another reason why Witten will struggle to make a major impact in the passing game.
The Falcons offense is among the most explosive units in the league. Its 28.7 yards-per-game average puts a lot of pressure on both the opponent’s offense and defense. Romo knows that he must find a way to keep pace with Matt Ryan and company.
This combined with a lack of a running game, the struggles of Doug Free, and a less effective Jason Witten only increases the likelihood of a turnover.
Don’t look for Romo and the Cowboys to hand the Falcons the first loss of its season.