The Dallas Cowboys report to training camp in San Antonio, Texas today, with practice starting tomorrow.
Now that all the offseason chatter about Terrell Owens' departure and Tony and Jessica splitting up is behind us, it is time to look at what it will take to get the Dallas Cowboys back on top of the NFC East and ready to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl.
The NFC East is once again the toughest division in the conference, if not the entire NFL.
While every year people talk about how the Cowboys play in December and January, it is imperative the Cowboys get off to a quick start in 2009.
2008 was a disappointment, and the team needs to prove they are more like the 13-3 team of 2007 than the 9-7 lackluster team of a year ago.
It is crucial that Tony Romo and the offense gel quickly and put some points on the board, but the determining factor on whether or not the Cowboys will be a force this year comes down whether or not the front seven can stop the run.
In 2008 the Cowboys defense ranked 12th in the NFL against the rush, giving up an average of 106.6 yards a game, and 4.2 yards per rushing attempt.
Nightmares of last season’s Week 16 loss to Baltimore continue to haunt Cowboys fans.
The defense gave up 265 yards rushing that day, which included two fourth quarter touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards.
That performance was the nail in the Cowboys' coffin, and ended any real playoff hopes for 2008.
This season Dallas will start off facing six opponents that will rely heavily on their running game.
Game 1 @ Tampa Bay: The Bucs will be breaking in a new starting quarterback—probably Byron Leftwich—as well as a new offensive system under new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.
The Bucs will be more committed to the running game with the addition of Derrick Ward, who rushed for 1,025 yards with the Giants last season.
Last year the Bucs ranked 15th in the NFL in rushing, with 114.8 yards per game.
Game 2 vs. New York Giants: The Giants led the NFL in rushing in 2008 with 157.4 yards per game. In the two games vs. Dallas in ’08, they averaged 136.0 yards per game, and 5.3 yards per carry.
Brandon Jacobs, who missed the second game against Dallas last year, will return for the Giants this year.
Without a proven No. 1 receiver for Eli Manning to rely on, look for the Giants to continue to pound the ball, especially early in the season.
Game 3 vs. Carolina Panthers: The first Monday Night game in the new Cowboys Stadium does not get any easier for the Cowboys' run defense.
The Panthers were ranked third in the NFL in rushing last year, averaging over 152 yards per game. They bring back the one-two punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and will try to overwhelm the Cowboys front seven.
To put that in perspective, the Cowboys ranked 21st in the NFL in rushing offense in 2008.
This year, the Broncos have No. 1 draft choice, Knowshon Moreno, along with free agent pick-ups Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan to lead their running game. Plus, they know have Kyle Orton playing quarterback. Believe me, the Broncos will want to establish the running game each and every week.
Game 5 @ Kansas City: Runningback Larry Johnson only played in 12 games for the Chiefs in 2008, but he still had 874 yards rushing, while the team ranked 16th in the league.
New QB Matt Cassel will have to go to battle with only one legitimate threat on the outside in WR Dwayne Bowe.
Look for Johnson to be called on early and often in the Chiefs' game plan.
Game 6 vs. Atlanta: The Cowboys face the No. 1 ranked Giants, and the No. 3 ranked Panthers, so you might as well add the No. 2 ranked Falcons to the mix.
Michael Turner powered the Falcons with 1,699 yards rushing and seventeen rushing touchdowns last season.
It is easy to see that the first six games will present some very big challenges for the Cowboys front seven. So who will be responsible for plugging the holes for the Cowboys in 2009?
Defensive End Marcus Spears: At 6’4" and 315 lbs, Spears has good size and strength. He had 35 tackles and one forced fumble in 2008.
He is not much of a playmaker though, and tends to disappear at times.
Nose Tackle Jay Ratliff: Probably the biggest surprise for the Cowboys defense in 2008. Ratliff earned Pro Bowl recognition with his 51 tackles and 7.5 sacks. He is solid, and can create congestion along the line of scrimmage.
Defensive End Igor Olshansky: Olshansky comes in to replace Chris Canty who took the free agent train to the divisional rival New York Giants. Olshansky plays the run well. At 6"6" and 309 lbs he is ideal as a defensive end in the Cowboys 3-4 defense.
Plus, he played under Coach Wade Phillips' defense when Phillips was at San Diego.
Outside Linebacker Anthony Spencer: Perhaps the biggest question mark on the front seven, Spencer steps in to fill the shoes of the departed Greg Ellis.
Spencer, in his third year out of Purdue, has excellent ball awareness to come off blocks and make plays.
As a former first round draft choice, the expectations are high that Spencer will be a force opposite Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware.
Inside Linebacker Bradie James: The heartbeat of the Cowboys' defense. James led the team with 116 tackles in 2008.
He is aggressive and fills the hole quickly. He continues to improve his playmaking skills, forcing three fumbles last season.
Inside Linebacker Keith Brooking: The long-time Atlanta Falcon joins Olshansky as a new addition to the front seven.
Age is the maintain question for this 33-year-old, twelve year veteran, but durability has not been an issue for Brooking, who has started every game over the past seven seasons for the Falcons.
Outside Linebacker DeMarcus Ware: If James is the heartbeat, then Ware is the lifeblood of the Cowboys' defense.
Ware played like the Defensive Player of the Year last year, and he finished second to the Steelers James Harrison. Ware forced six fumbles, and had a league leading twenty sacks.
He is the best playmaker on the team, and can make tackles from sideline to sideline.
So there you have it. While all the media attention is on Romo, Barber, Witten, and Roy Williams, the key to the Cowboys in 2009 will be Spears, Ratliff, Olshansky, Spencer, James, Brooking, and Ware.
Let’s hit the field.