Dallas Cowboys: 5 Keys to Winning the NFC East

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IISeptember 1, 2011

Dallas Cowboys: 5 Keys to Winning the NFC East

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    If the Dallas Cowboys are going to have a bounce back season this year, there are a number of things they're going to have to improve upon.

    The Cowboys had one of the most disappointing seasons of any NFL team last year.

    They started the season dreaming of being the first team ever to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium, and instead stumbled to a 1-7 start which led to head coach Wade Phillips being fired. 

    The team struggled with turnovers and inconsistent play-calling on offense and sported the worst defense in the history of the franchise. 

    America's Team then rebounded with a 5-3 finish under interim head coach Jason Garrett, including wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles

    However, many of the problems that plagued the Cowboys under Phillips persisted even after Garrett took over the reins. 

    After having his interim tag removed, Garrett subsequently hired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from the Cleveland Browns to fix a defense that allowed the second most points in the league last season, jettisoned overpaid and under performing veterans like Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Marc Columbo, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode, and has brought a no-nonsense attitude to training camp this season. 

    However, divisions are not won in the offseason, they are won on the field, and the Cowboys will have to make plenty of improvements in order to take out the Eagles, Giants and Redskins for the NFC East crown. 

5. Find a Pass Rusher Other Than DeMarcus Ware

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    When the Dallas Cowboys traded up to the 26th pick in the 2007 draft to select outside linebacker Anthony Spencer out of Purdue, it was with the expectation that he and DeMarcus Ware would form one of the most fearsome pass rushing combinations in the NFL. 

    Spencer has all the talent in the world, but has yet to put it together for a full season. 

    He has mostly been a disappointment since joining the team, save for a six game stretch where he recorded six sacks toward the end of the 2009-10 season. 

    This is likely the last year Spencer has to prove he is worthy of occupying the other starting outside linebacker spot opposite Ware, and if he under performs, he could be cut in the next offseason. 

    Victor Butler, a 2009 fourth round selection out of Oregon State, has shown flashes of ability during the preseason and should be in line for increased playing time this year. 

    Butler has rarely gotten the opportunity to show what he can do thus far in his career, but maybe with more looks he can turn into an impact player.

    An improved season from defensive tackle Jay Ratliff should also help to alleviate this problem.

    Ratliff has been one of the best defensive tackles in the league for much of his career, but had a subpar season last year. If he can regain his All-Pro form, the Cowboys defense should be much improved.

    Ratliff's ability to use his quickness to generate pressure up the middle and collapse the pocket in front of opposing quarterbacks is a key to the Cowboys' defense.   

    Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's system is predicated on confusing the opposition's offensive line by bringing rushers from different places, and this should help improve the pass rush as well. 

4. Commit to the Running Game

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    Jason Garrett has been known to get a little pass-happy (okay, that's probably an understatement) with his play-calling over the years. If the Cowboys want to get back to winning games, he needs to commit to running the football.

    For an example of just how addicted to the pass Garrett can get, you need look no further than the first two games of last season. In contests against the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears that were decided by a total of 13 points, the Cowboys called 99 passing plays to just 42 runs. Each of these games was within three points going into the fourth quarter. That ratio is simply unacceptable in close games.  

    Excluding quarterback runs, the Cowboys had just 377 rushing attempts last season as opposed to 576 pass attempts. That means the Cowboys called designed runs on just 39.6 percent of their offensive snaps in 2010-11. 

    Garrett will want to get the ball in Felix Jones' hands more often this season, and that means calling more rushing plays. Jones averaged just 11.5 carries per game last year, and that number should jump to between 15 and 18 this season. 

    In the three games where he had at least 15 carries last season, Jones rushed 53 times for 269 yards, good for a 5.07 yards per carry average, much better than his 4.3 average for the season. 

    Backup Tashard Choice has also had more success in his career in games where he receives 15+ carries. He has done so in five games in his career, and has rushed the ball a total of 92 times for 393 yards in those games. 

    Running the ball more often will also help to keep opposing defenses off balance and slow down their pass rush. An improved rushing attack will open up the play-action passing game, which is one of quarterback Tony Romo's greatest strengths. 

3. Protect Tony Romo

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    When healthy, Tony Romo has statistically been one of the best quarterbacks in the entire National Football League. 

    His passing numbers in terms of yards per attempt and completion percentage are on par with those of the best quarterbacks of this generation, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. For his career, Romo throws for 8.04 yards per attempt and completes passes at a 64.1 percent clip. Brady averages 7.38 yards per attempt and completes 63.8 percent of his passes and Manning averages 7.6 yards per attempt and completes 64.9 percent of his passes. 

    However, Romo has missed portions of two of the four seasons since he became the full-time starter, while Manning has never missed a game and excluding the season Brady missed with a torn ACL, he hasn't either. 

    It is the offensive line's top job to keep Romo on his feet this year. Breakdowns like the one that occurred against the New York Giants and led to Romo missing 10 games last season are unacceptable.  

    Last year's offensive line was experienced, but it was also old and slow. Gone are Marc Columbo, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode, and the Cowboys will likely start two rookies up front this season. 

    First round pick Tyron Smith will be the starting right tackle, and seventh round pick Bill Nagy has a legitimate shot to start at left guard.

    The Cowboys have gone from having one of the oldest offensive lines in the league to one of the youngest. Smith, 20, is the youngest player in the NFL this season, Nagy is a 23-year-old rookie, probable starting center Phil Costa is just 24 years old and left tackle Doug Free is 27. The only member of the offensive line over 30 is right guard Kyle Kosier.

    While the 'Boys counted on experience along the line last year, they are now depending on youth, speed and agility.  

2. Improved Play in the Secondary

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    The Cowboys' pass defense last season was, in a word, atrocious. There's really no other way to describe it. It was positively Texans-esque. 

    Okay, so the Texans were the only NFL team to have a worse pass defense than Dallas last season, but it wasn't by all that much. 

    The Boys allowed just the seventh most passing yards in the league last year, but tied with the Texans for most passing touchdowns allowed with 33. Someone got beat deep for a touchdown in seemingly every game last season. 

    Every single player in the secondary underachieved last season. After reaching the Pro Bowl in 2009, Mike Jenkins was simply one of the worst corner backs in the NFL last year. Terence Newman wasn't much better. 

    While both cannot possibly be expected to be as bad as they were last year, they have each missed valuable training camp time with injuries and are thus behind the eight ball when it comes to learning Rob Ryan's complicated defense. 

    Orlando Scandrick has had an excellent training camp and was rewarded with a five year, $27 million contract for his efforts, but he has struggled in the last two regular seasons. 

    Bringing over Abram Elam from the Cleveland Browns to be the "quarterback" of the secondary was a good move, especially because of his familiarity with Ryan's system. Communication will be a key for the secondary this year, because Ryan likes to move players around pre-snap to confuse the opposing offense. 

    Gerald Sensabaugh was also brought back on a one year deal, and he needs to improve this season for the secondary to hold its own against the tough passing attacks in the NFC East. 

    Overall, every player on this unit has room to improve from last season, and they need to do so for the Cowboys to rise to the top of the division. 

1. Cut Down on Mental Mistakes

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    More than anything else, the Dallas Cowboys of the last few seasons have been known for their excessive mental mistakes. 

    Turnovers. Penalties. Blown coverages. Missed blocking assignments. Dropped passes. 

    The responsibility for changing that perception falls squarely on the shoulders of head coach Jason Garrett. Garrett simply must instill discipline in a team that has been one of the most mentally weak teams of the last few years.

    Everyone remembers Alex Barron costing the Cowboys a win in the first game of the season last year against Washington with a holding penalty with no time on the clock. Everyone remembers the Cowboys having as many excessive celebration penalties as touchdowns in the first game and a half last season. 

    These types of things are not the marks of a good football team. 

    Too often over the last few seasons, excuses have been made for poor play and that has to stop. No one hears excuses coming out of New England or Indianapolis or Pittsburgh. Accountability and responsibility are the marks of top-notch franchises. 

    Garrett, for his part, has been doing all the right things since taking over the top job. He quickly instituted a dress code for game days, got players practicing in pads and going full contact more often and picked up the pace of the team in every way imaginable. 

    Garrett has continued to change the culture so far this preseason with the jettisoning of overpaid under performers like Roy Williams, Marion Barber, Leonard Davis, Marc Columbo and Andre Gurode. He also made the Parcells-esque move of not giving rookies a star on the side of their helmet until they actually made the team. Everything you hear coming out of Dallas is that this team will be a no-nonsense, no-excuses outfit and that is exactly what they need. 

    Garrett has expressed a desire to make the team run more like it did when he himself was a Cowboy and Jimmy Johnson was running the show, and that is exactly what needs to happen. 

    Those teams were disciplined and tough, and they beat teams because they out-executed them as much as because they had great talent. 

    This Cowboys team is already very talented, and Garrett needs to be able to harness that talent in the right way to take them back to the top.