Finally, the regular season has arrived. No more speculation about players and games that don’t count. The NFL regular season kicks off Sunday night for the Dallas Cowboys against the rival New York Giants.
Instead of pondering hypothetical scenarios and outcomes, we will be able to actually see what the 2013 Cowboys are made of on the field.
Coming into Week 1, there are many questions circulating around the team. Like how will the new offensive line perform after looking awful last year?
It’s difficult to put a lot of emphasis on the first game of the season; however, any divisional matchup looms large in determining the division’s final result. With less than a week until kickoff, let’s take a look at some of the larger questions Dallas faces in its matchup with New York.
All statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com unless indicated otherwise.
The line is very important this season.
The biggest question mark heading into the 2013 season is the quality of Dallas’ offensive line. Last year, the line was the weakest part of the roster and the main reason for the team’s mediocrity.
This year’s version will have at least two new starters in rookie center Travis Frederick and guard Ronald Leary. Right now, it appears Tyron Smith, Doug Free and Mackenzy Bernadeau will round out the remaining positions.
Although the line will be important for the Cowboys’ success all year, it’s especially critical in the matchup with the Giants.
New York’s defense isn’t as strong as it’s been in the past, but its defensive line is still one of the better units in the league. Cullen Jenkins, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul lead a solid front that will give Dallas some fits.
In order for the Cowboys to do anything offensively, they’ll need the line to step up to the occasion and play well. Unlike last year, the Cowboys will have to open up running lanes for DeMarco Murray and protect Tony Romo.
Another factor that will help is some discipline. Even at home, Dallas always seems to commit dumb false-start penalties that kill momentum. If the line can perform better, Dallas’ chances of beating the Giants at home for the first time in several years increase dramatically.
Murray will look to beat the Giants again.
Another big issue Dallas had in 2012 was its inability to run the ball. The team finished 31st in rushing because of problems within the line and another injury to starting running back Murray.
The talk all summer has been how the offense would be more balanced with Bill Callahan stepping in as the new play-caller. The Cowboys were way too pass-heavy. They need to rely on the run more this year. Doing so would take some pressure off Romo and help the team control the time of possession better.
In the opening week last season against New York, the Cowboys had one of their better running games. Murray ran 20 times for 131 yards, including a 48-yard scamper. They won that game, and the reason is clear.
Murray has shown that he can be a great NFL starter at times, but he just hasn’t put everything together yet. Through two seasons in the league, durability has been his biggest issue.
If he can run the ball well, it helps the team tremendously. It will open things up for Romo down the field and allow the defense to rest more by controlling the pace of the game.
Ware will try to punish Manning on Sunday.
The Cowboys defense didn’t perform well last season—period. You can blame their productivity on the many injuries they suffered, but they simply didn’t play well enough to win. This led to the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
With the hiring of Monte Kiffin comes a new scheme in the 4-3 defense. Although it takes some teams years to adjust to a different formation, Dallas feels ready now to be successful with its current personnel.
What will help Kiffin is the amount of superstar talent he has at his disposal. DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Anthony Spencer are all outstanding playmakers. Each will need to perform to their best ability for this defense to thrive.
The biggest problem the defense might face will be the interior of the line. Jason Hatcher is a solid starter, but the injury to Jay Ratliff hurts the team significantly. Nick Hayden will step in as the other starter at tackle, but there is minimal depth behind him.
It would be difficult for the defense if they don’t overcome last season’s inconsistency. The key will be to continue to generate pressure on the quarterback and force mistakes to create turnovers.
Bryant is now a superstar in this league.
In the second half of last year’s season, Dez Bryant was, arguably, the best receiver in the NFL. Through the final eight weeks, he caught 50 passes for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns. That would be a good season for most receivers.
In that final stretch, Bryant became a dominant force. He showed he was bigger, stronger and even faster than most defenders.
Bryant proved that he had matured both on and off the field last season. He stayed out of the eye of the media and let his incredible game do the talking. Other than Calvin Johnson, there’s not a more promising receiver coming into 2013.
Another contributing factor that will help Bryant continue to grow is his relationship with Romo. The quarterback clearly started trusting his young wideout more through the latter part of last season, resulting in the increased production.
Bryant will be crucial against the Giants because of the problems in their secondary. If all goes according to plan, he should be able to continue the stellar play he put on display in the preseason.
Claiborne needs to play well.
The final big question is how will the Dallas secondary be able to play against one of the better receiving teams. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are two of the more explosive receivers in football and have given Dallas problems in the past.
The Cowboys should be slightly concerned for a few reasons.
The first and biggest issue is that second-year corner Morris Claiborne is coming off an injury and minimal work this training camp. He just returned to practice last week and never saw any time in a game.
To be successful, Dallas needs its No. 2 corner to be up to speed to cover one of the Giants’ big options.
The other question marks are regarding the Cowboys safeties. Will Allen will be making his first start with the team, and Barry Church will be seeing his first regular-season action since tearing his Achilles.
In both games last year, Dallas held Eli Manning to less than 225 yards passing. Allen, Church and Claiborne will have to be exceptional in order to achieve the same success.