Cleveland Browns vs. Dallas Cowboys: Sketching out a Game Plan for Dallas

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 15, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 11: Quarterback Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys looks to pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during a game at Lincoln Financial Field on November 11, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys defeated the Eagles 38-23. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys can win the NFC East. It's within their reach, especially with the rest of the division struggling and the 'Boys benefiting from the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. But Dallas can't afford to overlook teams like the Cleveland Browns, who are actually 2-2 in their last four games after losing 14 of their previous 15 (dating back to 2011, of course). 

The recipe to avoid an upset against Cleveland in Week 11 requires Dallas to be aggressive on one side of the ball while remaining conservative on the other. 


Keep taking shots

Between Week 4 and Week 7, Tony Romo threw a total of six passes that traveled 20 yards or more in three games, according to Pro Football Focus. That's two per game.

But the Cowboys have adjusted the last three weeks. They've become more aggressive offensively despite the fact the offensive line hasn't been any better than it was in the preceding weeks, and as a result, we've seen Romo attempt 17 20-plus-yard passes in that span. 

In the last two weeks alone, Romo is 5-for-7 with 190 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (for a passer rating of 153.3) when throwing deep. It helps that his notoriously mistake-prone receivers have dropped only two total passes in those games. Romo clearly trusts his pass-catchers right now, and he's good enough in the pocket to make time despite mediocre pass protection. 

Before the Browns' Week 10 bye, top corner Joe Haden was beat for 16-plus yards four separate times, with Joe Flacco hooking up with either Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith on all four occasions. But the Browns have defended the slot fairly well (and will only be better in that spot if nickel man Dimitri Patterson returns from injury this week), so the Cowboys would be smart to move Miles Austin around more than usual in order to test Haden to see how he bounces back from a bad performance against Baltimore


But don't ditch the run

Of course, the run and the deep ball work hand in hand. Dallas was able to succeed deep against the Eagles last week because Felix Jones was finding room to work, and vice versa. Especially if DeMarco Murray isn't available, the 'Boys are likely tempted to keep the focus on the aerial attack as they look to put the Browns away quickly and decisively, but they should remain patient, taking what a run defense that has given up 4.3 yards per carry and 132 yards per game will give them.

Essentially what I'm saying is this isn't the game to go all West Coast on your opponent with short timing routes, checkdowns, screens and underneath passes. Offensive game plans should always be fluid, but that probably isn't the most beneficial approach when you consider the personnel and the numbers on both sides of the ball. 


And continue to stay home defensively

For the second straight week, the Cowboys defense will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays against a rookie quarterback. Brandon Weeden has the league's second-lowest completion percentage, and only Romo himself has thrown more interceptions. Considering the number of plays this Dallas D made, and almost made, last week in Philly, the Browns will likely try to control the clock, shortening the game with Trent Richardson.

Remember, the Cowboys are without Sean Lee, and thus, are much more vulnerable than usual against the run. And although Richardson has been inconsistent this season and he hasn't exactly been given heavy work loads, Dallas has to focus on not getting gashed on the ground.

The 'Boys only blitzed the Eagles six times last week, and their interception, their negated interception, their two sacks and a few close calls all came on plays in which extra rushers weren't a factor. The key for Dallas again this week will be to resist the temptation to intimidate Weeden, but instead to let Weeden make his own mistakes, just as Nick Foles did. 

Morris Claiborne has been up and down, but this secondary has been very good from a coverage standpoint against some superb quarterbacks and receivers of late. Rob Ryan has to continue to trust those guys and hope that natural pressure will be enough to get the job done. That way, the Cowboys won't have to sacrifice anyone in run defense, forcing Weeden to beat them.