Yes, the Dallas Cowboys have won three of their last four games, and without a last-minute collapse in Detroit, they'd be riding a four-game winning streak. But something is off with America's Team right now.
They've lost their sense of balance on offense, and top weapon Dez Bryant has been inconsistent, which has caused Tony Romo's passer rating to drop. His receivers dropped six passes in Week 9, which increased the team's season total by 50 percent, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The defense has surrendered 30-plus points four times in nine games and now ranks now ranks 31st in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per game, just a tenth of a yard ahead of the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles.
One week after that D was abused by Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions, the 'Boys needed a last-minute touchdown drive merely to defeat the 1-6 Minnesota Vikings at home. In the two weeks prior to that, against Washington and Philadelphia, Romo posted mediocre numbers and the offense combined for just 41 total points against two of the weakest defenses in the league.
Injuries have certainly been a factor, as the defensive line (DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff), secondary (Morris Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox), offensive backfield (DeMarco Murray), receiving corps (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin) and offensive line (Brian Waters) have all taken hits. But Dallas can't let injuries derail a second consecutive season. How do the Cowboys prevent that from happening? Let's break it down.
On offense, they have to give Romo more help
During the first five weeks of the season, Romo posted a 114.3 passer rating, which was the second-highest mark in the NFL. But the offense has been crushed ever since, making it difficult for him to hang in.
During those first five weeks, Romo was pressured on only 29.9 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, a rate that would make him the fourth-least-pressured quarterback in the NFL among those who qualify.
But since then, he's been pressured on 43.5 percent of his dropbacks, which would be the third-highest average in the league.
Romo's rating has been a measly 83.0 during that four-week span.
The 'Boys can't keep their quarterback on an island. That means committing to the run. It can't be a coincidence that top back DeMarco Murray suffered a knee injury in the first game of that slump. With Murray out, backups Joseph Randle, Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar averaged just 2.5 yards per carry.
|Team YPC||Pressure %|
|Before Murray's injury||4.6||29.9|
|After Murray's injury||2.9||43.5|
|Pro Football Reference/Focus|
When your running game is completely stagnant, sometimes you have no choice but to ditch it. But it seems offensive play-caller Bill Callahan failed to readjust when Murray returned in Week 9. Despite running for a 27-yard gain on Dallas' first offensive series, he received only three carries the rest of the game. The Cowboys ran 55 passing plays and only eight running plays, which simplified things for the Minnesota defense.
"We have to be more balanced," head coach Jason Garrett said this week, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins. "We have to give the running game more of an opportunity to get going."
But we've heard that before from Garrett.
“We have to run the ball more than 16 times in the game, and we have to be able to run it throughout the game,” he said back in mid-September, via Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We just simply have to do a better job of that.
Murray has averaged 4.8 yards per carry this season, which is the second-highest mark among qualifying running backs. The Cowboys have to make a much better effort to include him.
Helping Romo also means more aid in pass protection. Veteran guard Brian Waters is down for the year. Bookend offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free have been solid, but Waters was PFF's sixth-highest-rated pass-blocking right guard before he suffered a season-ending triceps injury. Fellow interior offensive linemen Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ronald Leary and Travis Frederick have not been good in pass protection, and opposing defenses are figuring that out.
Unfortunately, it's a little easier to help tackles than guards when it comes to pass protection. However, the Cowboys might still benefit from activating Andre Smith in favor of Gavin Escobar on game days going forward. Smith is the better blocker, so that would help the running game, which in turn should take some pressure off Romo.
They've utilized two tight ends a fair bit this season, but it's been Jason Witten with James Hanna the majority of the time, and neither is known for his blocking.
On defense, they can't over-tinker
What the Cowboys are doing on defense is working better than it might appear to be on the surface. They've been bending but not breaking. Hell, that was even the case of the majority of the day when they gave up 623 total yards in Detroit. The wheels didn't actually come off in that game until they'd lost half of their defensive starters due to injury in the fourth quarter.
Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme had some problems early, mainly because guys like Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne were slow to adapt to zone-oriented concepts. But then Kiffin began stressing more press-man and they appeared to be on the right track.
And then they gave up 54 total points against the Lions and Vikings and everyone started panicking yet again.
Still, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee and Jason Hatcher are all having the best seasons of their careers, Brandon Carr has been solid outside of that Detroit game and everyone else has been hanging in considering the majority of them weren't supposed to be starting. Ware has missed the last three games, while Claiborne sat out the Minnesota game and will remain out this week. Solid rookie safety J.J. Wilcox has been out the last two weeks, and Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff are long gone.
But Ware is expected to return Sunday night in New Orleans, and Wilcox and Claiborne shouldn't be out long-term. So instead of starting to take silly chances against highly skilled opposing quarterbacks like Drew Brees, the Cowboys have to show some patience and hope that guys like George Selvie and Nick Hayden can hold up.
This is a defense that has recorded just 1.7 sacks per game since Week 4, which is rough, and we've already mentioned that ugly yardage situation. But it's actually only surrendering 23.2 points per game, which is better than the league median and average. The unit seems to be good at clamping down when opposing offenses reach their side of the field, which might actually be scheme-related. The variety the team has gained in its coverages is paying off, and only the 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs have more takeaways than the Cowboys do.
In fact, they've already forced five more turnovers this year than they did all of last season.
So Kiffin can't cave to outside pressure and start tweaking. He can't pull a Rob Ryan and over-complicate things. The Cowboys don't need to add exotic blitz packages or make any dramatic coverage changes. They just have to keep making plays while they get healthy.
They have to show some more heart
It's not as though we haven't seen passion. Bryant's been vocal, and you know this team wants to end this playoff drought quite badly. That said, the Cowboys need one of those emotionally charged, season-altering victories to kick them into gear.
|Cowboys: Remaining schedule|
|Week 10||@ New Orleans Saints||6-2||+70|
|Week 12||@ New York Giants||2-6||-82|
|Week 13||vs. Oakland Raiders||3-5||-53|
|Week 14||@ Chicago Bears||5-3||+14|
|Week 15||vs. Green Bay Packers||5-3||+47|
|Week 16||@ Washington Redskins||3-6||-57|
|Week 17||vs. Philadelphia Eagles||4-5||-6|
|Total||3 home, 4 away||29-30||-67|
|Pro Football Reference|
The first time they had a chance to do that, they came up just short in a shootout with the powerful Denver Broncos. But where better to make up for that than in New Orleans?
The Cowboys have won back-to-back games just once this season, and they're the underdog for Sunday night's tough matchup with the New Orleans Saints. But with the Washington Redskins and Eagles (and even the New York Giants) applying pressure, Dallas might eventually have to win a game it isn't supposed to win.
This might have to be that game. If the team can lend Romo an extra helping hand and remain stubborn on D with the return of Ware, it could happen.