Despite Tony Romo’s lowest yards per attempt (5.4) mark since early 2009, the Dallas Cowboys sneaked out of their big Week 1 matchup with the division rival New York Giants at 1-0. That’s thanks in large part to their six takeaways—37.5 percent as many as they had in all of 2012.
That’s outstanding for now, but it also means the ‘Boys—who took down the Giants by only five points—will need to improve significantly if they want to continue racking up wins.
Heading into their Week 2 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, there are plenty of things to monitor in Big D. Although they currently sit atop the NFC East, there are some very real injury concerns. Anthony Spencer’s status is uncertain, as reported by Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. And as it stands right now, so is that of Dez Bryant, as Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas points out.
The ‘Boys also need to figure out a way to get the offense rolling. If Bryant is able to suit up, that means getting the football in his hands.
Even though Dallas' win wasn't pretty, it was still important. At home against the Giants, this was as much of a "must-win" contest as you can get in Week 1. The Cowboys have defended their home field against the Giants for the first time since moving into their new ballpark.
Meanwhile, the Eagles took down the Redskins in what was unsurprisingly a late shootout. Chip Kelly's offense looked unbelievable, seemingly running up and down the field at will while running just a few plays.
The NFC East is undoubtedly the most competitive division in football.
As mentioned, both Spencer and Bryant should be able to go.
Of those two players, Bryant is clearly the more vital. In addition to simply being a better player, there’s a major drop from Bryant to rookie Terrance Williams, who looked anything but ready for the bright lights on Sunday night.
Meanwhile, George Selvie has been surprisingly effective in his limited action. I wrote an entire article on why all the signs are there that Selvie will be special. I actually think the drop from Spencer to Selvie is minimal.
We’re still unsure on Lance Dunbar’s status for Week 2, although he's declared himself ready to go according to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His presence obviously isn’t a necessity for Dallas, but it could help.
I liked that the ‘Boys handed DeMarco Murray 20 of the 21 carries on Sunday night, but that’s only because Dunbar was out. If the speedster—who I argued is easily the Cowboys’ second-best back—can spell Murray at times, it should be a positive for Dallas.
And of course there’s that guy Tony Romo.
Although it appears the Cowboys sidestepped a disaster, according to Lindsay Jones of USA Today, you still have to wonder about Romo’s health.
Coming out of halftime against the Giants, Romo threw well short of Bryant on an in-and-up. It was one of Romo’s few long throws on the night, and you could tell he was hurting. I’m not a doctor, but I imagine badly bruised ribs can be pretty painful when you’re throwing a football.
Of those players, all should be effective if they’re active. The same might not be true of cornerback Morris Claiborne, who suffered a separated shoulder against the Giants. That sort of injury tends to linger, limiting a player’s range of motion.
What Must Improve
There are lots of differing opinions regarding Romo’s effectiveness in the Cowboys’ season opener. One thing he did well was protect the football; his only interception was the result of a blown route by Williams.
But Romo was also off for much of the contest. As mentioned, his 5.4 yards-per-attempt average was one of his worst marks ever.
Also, check this out:
Last night Romo had the 3rd-lowest yards per completion (7.31) ever for someone with 35+ completions. @BalesFootball— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 9, 2013
That’s pretty remarkable. We can say that Romo “took what the defense gave him,” but there’s always more room available than 5.4 YPA and 7.3 yards per completion. I thought Romo was overly cautious, and it almost came back to bite him.
Getting Dez Bryant Open
One of the primary reasons Romo didn’t attack downfield is that the Giants doubled Dez Bryant. And they really doubled him; I re-watched the game, and New York played with a safety over the top of Bryant on nearly every snap. On most plays, the Giants were in Cover 2 Man-Under—two safeties deep with man coverage underneath. If Bryant went deep, he was effectively doubled.
Well, you can bet that the Chiefs and every other opponent will copy the Giants’ game plan, so Dallas absolutely needs to find a way to get Bryant the ball against 2 Man-Under.
One potential solution is to run more double-moves. They obviously require good pass protection, which Romo had on Sunday night. Double-moves can allow Bryant to shake a cornerback and go one-on-one with a safety.
The second potential fix is to use some back-shoulder throws. We saw some in the preseason, but the Giants did a good job of taking them away by playing off-technique pretty regularly. I’d be targeting Bryant on pretty much any play that the cornerback is in a press position because back-shoulder throws can render the safety useless.
Finally, the ‘Boys can get defenses out of a Cover 2 shell by running the ball really well. I don’t think the Cowboys should overdo it with the run—that’s not their game—but a few long DeMarco Murray runs could bring a safety into the box, opening things up for Bryant to work on the outside.
Running More Packaged Plays
So the Cowboys need to improve their rushing efficiency. How can it be done?
One way might be to run more packaged plays—plays on which the offense has multiple options, such as a handoff, quick screen and so on, all within one play. And the determination as to which direction the offense will go isn’t made until after the play starts. Chip Kelly’s offense is basically all packaged plays.
The Cowboys obviously don’t have the luxury of a running quarterback, but they can (and have) run a form of the read-option in which Romo throws the ball if he pulls it from the running back’s belly. So it’s either a run or a pull and throw, but he reads a defender just like Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III.
Packaged plays can help rushing efficiency because the offense only runs when it’s available.
Matchup to Watch in Kansas City
Looking for a matchup to watch on Sunday? It’s got to be Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston versus Cowboys right tackle Doug Free.
Houston is a beast—one of the most underrated pass-rushers in the NFL—who has excelled despite his short stature. But we probably should have seen his breakout coming. Houston is relatively short, but he’s an amazing athlete (10'5" broad jump) and has ridiculously long 34.5" arms. Believe it or not, I’ve found arm length to be the most predictive trait for pass-rushers.
Houston—still only 24 years old—had 10 sacks last year and three in Week 1.
Houston won’t always be lined up over Free, but that will usually be the case. Last year, Pro Football Focus tracked Houston as rushing from the right side of the Chiefs’ defense on just 6.3 percent of his pass-rushing snaps. Although Free looks improved this year over last, he’s going to get eaten up if he’s continually on an island against Houston.