Heading into their Week 3 matchup with the St. Louis Rams, the Dallas Cowboys will need to shake off a very concerning loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The ‘Boys failed to get much going offensively for the second straight week, this time against a defensive scheme that was much different than that which they faced in Week 1.
The running game is clearly a concern. Running back DeMarco Murray averaged only 2.1 yards per carry against the Chiefs after totaling 4.3 yards per carry in Week 1, and he said he needs to get the ball more.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Murray isn’t calling the plays. It’s a little difficult to run the ball more when your lead back is barely cracking two yards per rush, and Murray should be the first person to know that. Why should this team blindly stick with the run when it’s so clear that it doesn’t work?
The Cowboys obviously need to run the ball more effectively, but the offense’s concerns extend beyond the running game. Romo has averaged only 6.2 yards per attempt and, although he’s been careful with the football, he also hasn’t generated many big plays. The Cowboys need to get the ball downfield in a hurry if they want to take down St. Louis this week.
Before diving into the matchup, let’s take a look at the current state of the Cowboys and the NFC East.
It’s good to be playing in the NFC East right now. Despite their horrible Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, the Cowboys still sit atop the division, and only one team—the Philadelphia Eagles—is even tied with them.
The Eagles could easily be sitting in first place had they not blown a late lead against the San Diego Chargers. Quarterback Michael Vick continues to run Chip Kelly’s offense with outstanding efficiency, as he’s thrown for over 600 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in two games. Philly’s defense is a mess, but Vick’s early season effectiveness should scare Cowboys fans.
In the Big Apple, Peyton Manning beat down little brother Eli by the score of 41-23. The younger Manning once again racked up yards in a loss, throwing for 362 of them on 49 attempts. The New York Giants might or might not be the best team in the NFC East, but either way, they’re in an early 0-2 hole.
The Washington Redskins ran into an offensive attack they weren’t prepared to see in Green Bay, falling to the Packers by 18 points. The story in Washington is that Robert Griffin III has only 25 total rushing yards this season. If defenses don’t at least fear RGIII on the ground, the Redskins offense is a dramatically different one.
The difference between the Cowboys’ Week 2 loss and that for the 0-2 squads, however, is the strength of the opponent.
The Chiefs are clearly better than the 2-14 record they posted a year ago, but that’s still the type of team the Cowboys need to beat if they want to make it into the playoffs. Now, the ‘Boys are 1-1 with more challenging games on deck down the road, whereas the Giants and the Redskins faced a pair of the league’s elite teams in the Broncos and Packers, respectively.
WR Dez Bryant
CB Orlando Scandrick
DE Anthony Spencer
CB Morris Claiborne
LB Ernie Sims
The Cowboys made it out of Kansas City relatively unscathed. Wide receiver Dez Bryant’s back tightened up on him near the end of the game, and cornerback Orlando Scandrick had to get stitches in his chin, but neither player will miss any time. It also looks like defensive end Anthony Spencer will be good to go in practice this week after missing the Cowboys’ opener:
Anthony Spencer said his knee is sore but expects to practice this week.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) September 16, 2013
It was also a good sign to see that quarterback Tony Romo’s ribs didn’t seem to bother him against the Chiefs. He took an injection prior to the game—something he might continue to do moving forward just as a precaution. If Romo did experience any ill effects of his bruised ribs, they should disappear by Sunday’s matchup with the Rams.
What Must Improve
While the consensus opinion seems to be that the Cowboys need to run the ball more, that’s the last thing this team needs. Not only would adding more runs into the mix just decrease offensive output, but the Cowboys have proved to be superior long-term winners when they pass the ball early and often in games. They run late when they’re winning and throw late when losing, creating the illusion that balance wins games.
Having said that, there’s no doubt that the ‘Boys need to find a way to run the ball more effectively—one of my key areas of necessary improvement.
The Cowboys currently rank 22nd in the NFL in rushing efficiency with 3.2 yards per carry and 26th in attempts with 32.
More so than the numbers, the Cowboys just need to be able to run the ball more efficiently when they want to do it, which should generally be in short-yardage situations, on third down, and to close out games. This team isn’t going to continually beat defenses on the ground, but it would help if the running game could complement Romo and the passing game.
So how can it improve?
There might not be a great answer to that question right now, but just handing it off to Murray and hoping for the best isn’t it. It might help to give Lance Dunbar some more touches. Although he fumbled on Sunday, he sure looked a heck of a lot more explosive than Murray in his limited work. Although the offensive line is the primary culprit for the rushing woes, Murray hasn’t made many defenders miss in the open field, either.
Another potential solution is to run the ball more from spread formations. The Cowboys are a much, much better rushing team when they spread defenses, but they don’t do it often. If the ‘Boys can spread out the Rams this week, it should reduce the number of vital blocks they need to make, helping Murray and Dunbar find some room to run.
Deep Passing Game
Through two games, Romo has only five attempts that have traveled 20 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That’s 5.5 percent of his passes—the second-lowest rate in the NFL, behind only this week’s opponent in Sam Bradford.
With Bryant on the outside, there’s just no reason to not take your shots. It was semi-excusable in Week 1 since the Giants played with so many two-deep looks, but the Chiefs didn’t; the Cowboys had chances to get the ball downfield, especially with quality pass protection for much of the game, but they didn’t take them.
Romo isn’t the only one to blame.
Jason Garrett’s scheme has never emphasized downfield throws—the Cowboys did it on just 10.8 percent of their passes last year—and with Bill Callahan calling the plays, it only figures to get worse. It’s fine to use the short passing game as an extension of the running game, but that’s going to be a little difficult if you never attack downfield.
The Cowboys sent extra rushers after Smith more than they did in Week 1, and it backfired. Smith rushed for 57 yards—his career high—primarily because Dallas was in man coverage and the defenders had their backs turned to Smith when he scrambled.
The Cowboys’ blitzes won’t cost them in the same way this week against quarterback Sam Bradford, but it’s something to watch with Michael Vick and RGIII on the schedule four times.
Key Matchups to Watch vs. St. Louis
The Rams have one of the most underrated pass-rushing duos in the NFL in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Long doesn’t have a sack in 2013, but he actually led the entire NFL in pressures in 2012. Quinn has already racked up four sacks and six quarterback hits.
One interesting note on the pair is that they don’t switch sides. Long almost always rushes from the left side of the defense, meaning he’ll be over top of right tackle Doug Free, and Quinn from the right side of the defense, meaning he’ll be over top of left tackle Tyron Smith.
Since both Long and Quinn can wreak havoc on the Cowboys’ passing attack, it will be difficult to double one or the other. And both guys can also stop the run. It might be best for the Cowboys to actually spread the field and use the quick passing game to move the ball up the field, keeping blockers in only when they want to take their shots downfield.
Either way, the Cowboys’ ability to neutralize Long and Quinn will be essential to their success on Sunday.