Coming off a bye week, the Dallas Cowboys are looking to build on some of the momentum they created in a 27-13 victory of the Houston Texans in week three of the young season. Unfortunately, they are facing a strong 2-2 Tennessee Titans team at home in what is sure to be a physical game up front.
The Titans, on the other hand, are coming off a loss to Denver and would like to build some momentum in the AFC South in a year where the Colts (shock) are struggling. Though their rushing attack is ninth in the league, Chris Johnson has not been nearly as effective as last year (much to the chagrin of fantasy owners). A big win in Dallas and the Titans are looking ahead at a manageable schedule before facing off late with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts.
Both teams really need this win, but the Cowboys' sense of urgency is surely greater. Proclaimed dead after the first two weeks of the season, many prognosticators are again predicting an NFC East title. If they can put their talent to use on both sides of the ball, this very well may be a reality. But Tennessee is a tough opponent and the Cowboys must play with the same sense of urgency they had in Houston to beat Tennessee.
Let's take a look at 5 things that must happen for the Cowboys to win this important week 5 matchup.
Pretty obvious, right? This is easier said than done Chris Johnson is easily the most dangerous player on the Titans team and perhaps in the whole league. He is, however, struggling a bit right now. He's had two great games, going over 100 yards and scoring two touchdowns, both Titans victories. In their two losses, however, Johnson has run for 34, and 53 yards respectively with a less than 3 YPC average.
To win this game, the Cowboys don't necessarily have to keep Johnson at 34 or 53 yards, but they do need to manage him, and keep him from getting into the open field on big plays. They also must make sure to keep an eye on him in the screen and checkdown game. Though he has still caught quite a few balls this season, his average yards per catch is way down from last season's average. If the Cowboys can continue this trend. Look for the Titans to struggle offensively.
The Cowboys do have the 8th ranked rushing defense, but they haven't exactly played teams with power rushing games. In their one real test against a powerful runner, the Houston Texan's Arian Foster, they gave up 106 yards on only 17 carries. They must be better against Chris Johnson or it could be a long day for the defense.
Vince Young has certainly made some impressive strides over the past few seasons passing the ball, but don't expect him to consistently carry a team from the pocket. He still makes poor decisions and isn't as accurate as Titans fans would like. The Cowboys should be able to contain the passing attack of the Titans, especially if Justin Gage is unable to play or gets limited action.
Even if Young is struggling through the air, he can kill you on the ground. I have nightmares about his performance against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. While he won't make that kind of noise on the ground, the Cowboys must keep contain with Young. If they let him get outside and on the move, he will be able to convert 3rd downs and keep drives alive. I wouldn't be surprised if the Cowboys use a spy on Young to keep taps on him at all times.
Protecting the quarterback is important every week, but it may be especially difficult against the Titans. The Cowboys offensive line has given up only one sack this season, but the Titans are tied for the league lead with 16 sacks. Doug Free has been impressive through the first three games, and Kyle Kosier is expected to play. With a healthy and huge offensive line, the Cowboys should be able to keep the pressure off Romo long enough for him to find receivers down the field.
Expect the Cowboy's to relieve some pressure on Romo with a few screen plays to Felix Jones, especially if the Titans blitz early in the game. Also, Miles Austin, and to a lesser degree Dez Bryant, are capable of turning short passes into big gains. Romo will look to get the ball into his receivers hands early and let them beat defenders in the open field. This will be a serious test for the Cowboys, the Titans have a relatively stingy pass defense.
Despite having three solid running backs in their backfield, the Cowboys rank an embarrassing 26th in rushing yards. This is due in part to early injuries on the offensive line and Jason Garrett's unwillingness to stick with the run. This week, however, Garrett needs to keep the Titans defense honest with a balanced attack. If it's obvious that Romo is going to drop back every play and pass, expect the Titans to pin back their ears and get after the quarterback. I like the Cowboy's sweeps and tosses, especially since Barber has slimmed down and Felix is very quick to get to the edge. Some outside runs behind Free and Columbo will give this offense greater latitude in the passing game. Also, a strong rushing attack will chew up clock and keep Chris Johnson off the field.
Despite their depth of talent the last few seasons, the Cowboys never seem to match the intensity or heart of their opponents. This seemingly lackadaisical approach infuriates fans more than anything else, and causes teams to lose ball games. In the first two games of the season, the Cowboys played uninspired football. Against Houston, however, they played with the sense of urgency they needed. If they play hard, their talent will show and they can win ball games. If they come out flat, expect another long day for the Cowboys and a 1-3 start.
I think the Titans are a dangerous team, especially if Chris Johnson gets rolling. I think, however, that with the extra prep time, the Cowboys will have a solid scheme in place to stop the Titans RB. If that happens, the Titans will have difficulty moving the ball and putting points on the board.
The Cowboys offense, on the other hand, has several weapons at its disposal. If Roy Williams and Tony Romo are finally on the same page, the Cowboys have three receivers which defenses must contend with, in addition to cover Romo's safety blanket, Jason Witten. If the Cowboys have some semblance of a running game, then Romo will have the time to find receivers. The Cowboys will put up numbers similar to their win over Houston.
Coming out of a bye week, expect Cowboys to have a strong defensive scheme and good focus. Wade Philips has already said that the Cowboys have had the best bye week practices of his tenure in Dallas. It looks like the 0-2 start has brought out the best in the Cowboys.
Prediction: Cowboys 31 Titans 17