At 7-4, the Cowboys are a game ahead of the Giants for first in the NFC East and in great position to win the division.
While their fortunes may come down to their two remaining games against the G-Men, it sure would be nice to head into the teams’ Week 17 matchup (in New York) with the division already in hand. A huge part of that involves taking down the teams the ‘Boys should beat, and the Cardinals are one of those teams.
The Cowboys have slipped past a couple inferior squads in the past two weeks, and they can’t just roll into the desert and expect a win on Sunday.
Here is how they can improve to 8-4.
DO Focus on Stopping Larry Fitzgerald
This is quite obvious. While Beanie Wells is playing well and cannot be allowed to run rampant like he did last week, he does not come close to posing the same threat to Dallas, as is the case with Fitzgerald.
He does everything for Arizona—he goes over the middle, he catches deep passes, he blocks. There’s no doubt that Rob Ryan’s No. 1 priority on every play should be putting the defense in the proper position to adequately defend Fitzgerald.
With Mike Jenkins returning this week, the Cowboys should be up to the task. Although the secondary has struggled, a combination of Jenkins or Terence Newman playing underneath Fitzgerald and Gerald Sensabaugh over top should be a great matchup.
I’d actually place Jenkins on Fitzgerald the majority of the time, as he has ball skills far superior to Newman’s.
It will be interesting to see if Ryan plays a lot more safe zone coverages, such as Cover 2, to make sure the cornerbacks always have help over the top.
I don’t think Cover 2 is necessary if the Cowboys simply shade Sensy over top of Fitzgerald, allowing Abram Elam to roam into the box to stop Wells. It would be nice if Dallas obtained an early lead, allowing them to forget about the run and completely focus on Fitzgerald.
DO Play with Outside Leverage in the Secondary and Blitz from the Boundary
The Cowboys should try to force everything inside this week, whether it is with their pass-rush or coverage.
Kevin Kolb is set to return for Arizona, and he excels when throwing on the run, particularly when outside of the pocket. When throwing over the middle this season, Kolb has recorded a passer rating of just 70.8, compared to 100.5 to the right side of the field. He’s simply better on the move, so force him to stay in the pocket.
Another reason to blitz from the perimeter—particularly from the slot—is the weakness of Arizona’s offensive tackles. Left tackle Levi Brown has been absolutely atrocious in 2011, allowing an incredible 10 sacks and 33 pressures.
Both figures are second-worst in the NFL. Right tackle Brandon Keith hasn’t been much better, allowing four sacks and 16 pressures in just over half the snaps of Brown. They should struggle with stunts and other forms of blitz pickup.
Expect to see Orlando Scandrick in the backfield quite often on Sunday.
DON’T Kick to Patrick Peterson
The Cowboys are the superior football team and need to limit the Cardinals’ big-play potential.
Whose play is good enough to legitimately take over a game and defeat Dallas?
Fitzgerald in the passing game, and Peterson in the return game. A 35-yard punt out of bounds is better than consistently kicking to the young phenom.
DO Attack Peterson Through the Air
Peterson’s success as a returner has led most to assume he’s having a tremendous rookie campaign—but he isn’t. Peterson hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t been that special either, yielding more than 8.4 yards-per-attempt on the season.
Tony Romo doesn’t need to specifically target Peterson, but there’s no reason to avoid him, either.
DON’T Underestimate the Cardinals Defense
Although Arizona hasn’t played particularly well as a unit, they do have some playmakers on the defensive side of the ball who have the potential to cause some problems for Dallas.
They are particularly stout on the defensive line, with defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett leading the pack. Campbell has 19 pressures in 2011, compared to eight, six and five, respectively, for Cowboys ends Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman.
Dockett has been even better than Campbell, recording a ridiculous 28 pressures from his hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle position. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington and his 58 tackles pose even more of a threat in the middle of the Cardinals’ defense.
Further, safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes have been superior to Arizona’s cornerbacks, making the perimeter of the team’s defense undoubtedly inferior to the middle. This isn’t baseball, though, and having weak cornerbacks and outside linebackers in your 3-4 defense is a sin.
Dallas should attack those weaknesses.
DO Run Outside
Again, counters, powers, tosses and so on will be valuable to Dallas.
Both DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones excel on them, and the plays simply allow the Cowboys to obtain better blocking matchups.
DO Focus on the Interior of Arizona’s Defensive Line in Pass Protection
There’s really no reason to double-team outside linebackers Clark Haggans and Sam Acho.
Jason Garrett should be far more concerned with making sure Dockett, Campbell and company do not get pressure up the middle.
Gun 3 Wide Pro (below) might be a way to do this, allowing Jason Witten and a running back to aid the Cowboys’ weak interior line. Placing Martellus Bennet next to Romo instead of Witten could (and probably should) be an option as well.
That would allow Witten to go out into routes (and keep Bennett out of them). If the Cardinals have an advantage over Dallas this week, it is at this interior location. Help Phil Costa and Montrae Holland whenever possible.