The Dallas Cowboys, who play 4 of their next 5 games outside Texas, head to Maryland this week to take on the Baltimore Ravens. Every Sunday morning, I am going to try to write a list of the specific things I will be looking for as I watch the game. Most of them will be posed as questions. If you can answer any of the questions, feel free to email me [email protected], and I may include your contribution in my post next week. In no particular order:
1. How will the return of defenders NT Jay Ratliff, OLB Anthony Spencer and DE Kenyon Coleman affect Rob Ryan’s defense?
All three of the players are key contributors to a Dallas Cowboys defense that is already off to a great start to the 2012 NFL Season. The defense has been average against the run, good against the pass, and much improved in preventing the big plays that have haunted them in recent years. The addition of these three players should immediately improve the defense and give Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan many more options in the packages he uses, formations he deploys, and plays/blitzes he calls.
Can Anthony Spencer improve the pass-rush?
Everyone assumes that Spencer, based on his history of being a stalwart defender aginst the run, will improve the Cowboys run defense, but he puts pressure on the opposing QB far more often than most people give him credit for. I wrote a series of 3 articles in the offseason arguing that Spencer was close to being an elite OLB in the NFL based on his pass-rushing alone.
I will be watching to see how much Spencer creates pressure on Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco and how much of an impact that has on the game.
I will also be watching whether there is a noticeable difference in Spencer’s ability to “set the edge” against the run compared to OLB Victor Butler and the others who replaced him.
How frequently will Jay Ratliff be played and will they limit his snaps to obvious passing situations?
Many analysts have argued that that the Cowboys rushing defense has not suffered as a result of Ratliff”s absence because of the solid play by DT Josh Brent and defenesive lineman Sean Lissemore; while neither Brent nor Lissemore will draw the constant doubleteams in passing situations, their play in the running game has been solid.
I will be watching who plays NT on 1st down, and when Ratliff plays.
I will also be watching to see if Ratliff can have an immediate impact on the Dallas Cowboys collective pass-rush, either by getting pressure himself or drawing double teams that allow other defenders to get to Joe Flacco.
I will be watching to see if anyone employed with the Dallas Cowboys organization shows any signs of finally accepting the truth that has seemed self -evident to most of us for years: the days of Jay Ratliff being an every-down NT in the NFL are over. Ratliff should be concerned about how many more years he can earn a paycheck in the NFL, will he demand that he be used sparingly so as to maximize his effectiveness when he is used and preserve his strength for the fourth quarter and his health for future seasons?
Will Jay Ratliff’s legendary intensity and nastiness inspire the rest of the team?
Can Kenyon Coleman bounce back and play at his normal level?
Coleman is underrated as a DE because he doesn’t get many sacks, but part of the reason the Cowboys have been solid against the rush is having a bunch of lineman who can be switched in and out so everyone stays fresh for the 4th quarter. Having another body in the rotation will make everyone better.
Will OLB Victor Butler benefit from playing fewer snaps and being unleashed to rush the QB more frequently when he does play?
2. Will the Dallas Cowboys offense resemble anything that even has the slightest bit of balance?
Head Coach Jason Garrett’s offense has been criticized for being “one dimensional”, “unbalanced” and “pass-happy” ever since he became the Offensive Coordinator under former HC Wade Phillips. The knocks on Garrett’s offense always seemed overly critical: his offense usually scored enough points to win and the defense routinely failed to protect leads.
But things are different this year. The defense is playing well; they are not giving up big plays for easy, quick TDs; and they are not collapsing late in games. It is the offense that looks like it is unable to perform its obligations successfully. Then our own Cowgirlcas wrote a post about Garrett’s predictable play calling.
Have defenses figured out Jason Garrett’s offense? Is he still running the same plays that the defense looks ready for, and then calling them again?
The benefits of a rushing attack that forces defenses to respect the run on 1st down and/or 2nd and intermediate range (never mind bringing an 8th man into the box to stop a good running game) are well documented. The inability of Jason Garrett’s Dallas Cowboys to convert on 3rd and short has also be examined. We all witnessed what happens when the Cowboys have no running game and QB Tony Romo tries to win games by himself.
If the Dallas Cowboys are unable to rush the ball effectively against the Baltimore Ravens (who gave up 125 yards on the ground to the Chiefs last week), then I will be asking these questions:
Why can’t the Cowboys run the ball when they have an extremely talented RB in the DMM Express who has speed, power, patience, and vision?
Are they really paying the price for years of neglect and mis-prioritization of Dallas Cowboys Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones?
Will Jason Garrett stick to the run as long as the score is close even if it is unsuccessful, or will he go shotgun every play as soon as they are down by a touchdown?
Is Doug Free really as overpaid as many suggest?
Are the interior lineman as ineffective run-blocking as everyone seems to believe?
Who is most to blame?
3. How good would QB Tony Romo and RB DeMarco Murray be if they played on teams with top-tier offensive lines?
This Dallas Cowboys team is still struggling to find an identity. How they play today against the Baltimore Ravens may be an important part in them forming an identity. A road win after such a poor outing in their last game would help heal their collectively wounded psyche. I expect Tony Romo to have a very good game. Last year, after the game against Detroit, Romo settled down and played some of the best and smartest football of his life. I expect him to respond the same way this week. Baltimore Ravens fans may have an upset in store for them.