Browns vs. Cowboys: 10 Keys to the Game for Dallas
Just a few weeks ago the Cowboys were coming off a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Falcons and left with a 3-5 record. But the old saying that winning fixes everything, or in this case, at least starts the process of fixing things, could not be more true.
Suddenly the Cowboys are still a disappointing 4-5, but the home stretch of their schedule looks a lot more palatable and so do their prospects in climbing back into the NFC East.
So, up next for the Cowboys is a young Cleveland Browns team looking to make a name for themselves against a high-profile opponent and looking for a much needed road win. The Browns are mired in another miserable losing season and are trying to deal with ownership changes, coaching rumors and developing some of their younger players.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are trying to stack consecutive wins for the first time this season after a hard-fought 38-23 victory in Philadelphia last weekend. And if the playoffs are to remain a possibility, then taking care of business at home is paramount for this team. If the Cowboys somehow overlook this game or play down to the level of their competition, they can pretty much kiss the season goodbye
The Browns do present many challenges despite their record of 2-7, and it all starts with that young core of players they are trying to build their franchise with. Let's take a look at the Cowboys' Week 11 opponent and the keys to victory.
It is a victory the Cowboys must have.
Establish the Run
With the DeMarco Murray injury situation still up in the air, the Cowboys need to build off of Felix Jones' performance against Philadelphia. He rushed for 71 yards and scored on an outstanding 10-yard catch that included breaking multiple tackles and multiple hearts of Eagles fans.
In recent weeks he looks to have more of a burst and seems to be running with more purpose and intensity. What makes establishing the run even more important is the fact that Cleveland ranks 27th in the NFL in run defense, while giving up over 130 yards per game.
The Cowboys have a real chance to control the tempo and to exploit this weakness in the Browns defense.
Cut Down on Penalties
The amount of penalties the Cowboys have committed in multiple games this year is nothing short of head-scratching. Last week's game against the Eagles, which featured an offsides party, was borderline embarrassing.
Of course, winning the game masks an ugly statistic like committing 13 penalties, six of which resulted in first downs for the Eagles, but this team needs to get this fixed pronto.
The most staggering part about this problem for the Cowboys lies in the number 13. They have committed 13 penalties in four different games this year. If they continue this trend against a young Cleveland team looking to hang around, it can prove to be fatal. And right now, the Cowboys can't afford anymore self-inflicted wounds.
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With so much at stake for the Cowboys and little margin for error, this is not the game for Tony Romo to get into turnover mode, and the same goes for the entire offense. Protecting the ball, making smart decisions and playing efficient football will be the keys to winning this battle.
The first key of the game, establishing the run, will go a long way in mitigating the potential for turnovers by the Cowboys. They just can't allow a team like Cleveland to be opportunistic as a result of reckless play. It could prove too costly for the Cowboys.
Ball Distribution and Balance
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Against the Eagles, six different players caught passes and only one, Cole Beasley, had just a single catch. I liked the ball distribution Jason Garrett achieved in the game plan, and it allowed the Cowboys to be successful on two critical drives. The first one that tied the game at seven and the second one that tied the game at 17.
The Cowboys also showed great balance in that Eagles game by throwing the ball 26 times and running 25 times. Against Cleveland, the Cowboys should replicate this formula for success.
Win the Battle Outside
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Establishing the run will help set up big plays in the passing game for Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, but only if they recognize the opportunities and win the battles. If Joe Haden misses the game with an oblique injury, that will further weaken the Browns defense.
The Cowboys must win the battle with Austin and Bryant over Buster Skrine and Sheldon Brown. On paper this appears to be a grossly overmatched battle in favor of Dallas, but you can never underestimate your opponent. Brown is an NFL veteran who played with the Eagles and knows a thing or two about the Cowboys.
Another aspect of this game that can pay dividends for the wide receivers is the attention Jason Witten will command from free safety T.J. Ward. Tony Romo will have to make plays in the passing game, and a few big ones could put this game out of reach early.
Morris Claiborne's Confidence
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Last weekend, the rookie from LSU, had an afternoon to forget, but it could be necessary for his development. It was only a matter of time before somebody really tested Claiborne, and the Eagles certainly gave him a full dose. He was beaten by Riley Cooper and committed four penalties, but the more important question is how will he bounce back?
A lot of that could hinge on the availability of Mike Jenkins, which would allow Claiborne to take a breather or clear his head should similar events transpire. It would be hard to fathom Cleveland not at least attempting to pick on the rookie for big-play opportunities or trying to draw a flag. You could bet rookie receiver Josh Gordon will be looking for a big play.
Is Claiborne up for the challenge? Probably. With the exception of last week's mishaps, he has shown a steady progression, and his talents are obvious. Even the best cornerbacks get beat or have a bad day, but his confidence and abilities are still vital to what Rob Ryan wants to achieve scheme wise.
Account for Trent Richardson
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Richardson is the real deal and is on his way to being a special player in the NFL. In Cleveland's last two games he has rushed for 227 yards and one touchdown. He has a real nice skill set; he's compact, powerful and does not shy away from contact. He's also quick, elusive, able to dart through holes and serves as a do-it-all safety valve for Brandon Weeden.
The Cowboys do not want to see him running free into the secondary, and that will require gap discipline, solid containment and Bruce Carter sniffing him out while multiple defenders swarm to the ball. Richardson has to be accounted for, and Rob Ryan's game plan will probably emphasize that.
Special-Teams Impact for Both Teams
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The Browns average 13.7 yards on punt returns and 28.5 on kickoffs. Those statistics give the Browns a ranking of second in the NFL in both categories. A large part of the credit goes to Josh Cribbs, who poses a major threat every time he touches the ball. For a team struggling offensively, the Browns will be looking for any type of spark they can get.
Conversely, the Cowboys finally had something go right for them on special teams with a huge punt return for a touchdown by Dwayne Harris last week. They also avoided disaster in that same game by falling on a Lance Dunbar fumble on a kickoff that was retrieved by Eric Frampton.
Which team will benefit most from their special-teams unit? That remains to be seen, but I expect it to play a role in this game.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
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Rob Ryan's defense has been consistently solid for this team through nine games, and I expect no less against Cleveland. Brandon Weeden has been struggling of late and has only completed 48 percent of his passes with zero touchdowns in his last two contests.
The Cowboys can't afford to have the rookie get comfortable in the pocket and throw the ball with confidence. They have to put him under duress, confuse him with stunts and twists and wreak havoc. Ryan talks about defensive takeovers and not just causing turnovers, and that needs to ring true this weekend.
DeMarcus Ware will be counted on as usual to make Weeden's stay in Dallas a miserable one, but he will be often locked into battles with stud tackle Joe Thomas. That means that Anthony Spencer, Victor Butler and the rest of the defensive front have got to do their jobs by getting lots of pressure without blitzing. This will be a huge key to the game.
Forget About Cleveland's Record and Seize the Opportunity
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This is probably the single greatest key to this ballgame. The Cowboys have a chance to get back to the .500 mark and gain ground on the Giants who are sitting at home on a bye week. What more does this team need in the motivation department than the opportunity staring them in the face?
The Cowboys were left for dead after losing to Atlanta and left to deal with the negativity swirling around the team about Jason Garrett's job security, Jerry Jones' role as GM and which players would be replaced. But what a difference a few weeks makes, right? Not only are the Cowboys back in the playoff picture but they are in the hunt for the NFC East title.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves and overlook the Cleveland game. The Cowboys still need to win the small battles, and that means taking this game quarter by quarter, doing the little things right, paying attention to detail and emerging victorious.
In order to do that and not look ahead, the Cowboys need to forget about Cleveland's record and their struggles and treat this game with urgency. Whether anybody wants to admit it or not, this is a must-win game for Dallas and maybe the most important one.
In order to seize any opportunities, you can't overlook the first step in the journey. It's the most important one.