Playoff Preview: Dallas Cowboys

After switching from Drew Bledsoe to Tony Romo under center, the Dallas Cowboys started to look like the team to beat in the NFC. But two home losses to finish the season - including a head-scratcher to lowly Detroit in Week 17 - dropped them to 9-7 and the No. 5 seed. Bear Report takes a look at Bill Parcells's club as they face NFC West champ Seattle in the wild card round.

Rushing Offense
The Cowboys are 13th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 121 yards per game. Tailback Julius Jones led the team with 1,084 yards on the ground, cracking the four-figure barrier for the first time after coming up seven yards short a year ago. Although Thomas's little brother is not much of a threat out of the backfield in the passing game - he made only nine grabs in 2006 - he has improved his ball security and fumbled only once after putting it on the ground seven times his first two seasons. Jones may be atop the depth chart, but second-stringer Marion Barber III appears to be a star in the making and led the team with 16 touchdowns. Barber sees a lot of time on third down and caught 23 passes this year, plus he's proven to be a fantastic runner near the goal line.

Passing Offense
The Cowboys are 5th in the NFL in passing offense, averaging 239.8 yards per game. Veteran Drew Bledsoe started the first six games of the season, but he was pulled in favor of former Eastern Illinois star Tony Romo in a Week 7 loss to the Giants. Romo became an instant media darling after winning five of his first six starts and putting the Cowboys in position to win the NFC East, but he cooled off significantly down the stretch as evidenced by eight interceptions in his final five games. First-year Cowboy Terrell Owens was his usual attention-hungry self but still wildly productive with 85 catches and 1,180 yards, and speedster Terry Glenn had another solid season with 70 receptions and 1,047 yards of his own. Tight end Jason Witten scored only once despite 12 TDs the last two years, but he was still a reliable weapon with 64 grabs and 754 yards.

Rushing Defense
The Cowboys are 10th in the NFL in rushing defense, averaging 103.7 yards allowed per game. They are the only NFC playoff team that employs a 3-4 scheme. Linebacker Bradie James is the club's leading tackler with 103, although only 66 of them were solos. Fellow LB Akin Ayodele came over from Jacksonville this season and performed admirably, making 84 stops and intercepting two passes. Nose tackle Jason Ferguson did a pretty good job clogging up the middle in 2006 and contributed 46 tackles.

Passing Defense
The Cowboys are 24th in the NFL in passing defense, averaging 219.1 yards allowed per game. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware played well as a rookie last season, but he developed into a stud in 2006 with 73 tackles, five forced fumbles, 11.5 sacks, and a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown. Second-year defensive ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty have the ability to be impact players in this league, but they had only one sack each and need to do a better job of putting pressure on the quarterback. But the real problems for Dallas's defense are in the secondary as cornerback Anthony Henry actually led the team in solo tackles - never a good sign - with 73. Safety Roy Williams is fantastic in run support and provides a highlight-reel hit seemingly every week, but he has been awful in coverage most of his career.

Special Teams
Mike Vanderjagt was given a $2.5 million signing bonus and a lucrative three-year deal as a free agent from Indianapolis, but despite being the most accurate kicker statistically in NFC history, he was cut in November due to his erratic performance. Martin Gramatica converted six of his eight field goal attempts and all 14 of his extra points in five games to close the season. Australian Mat McBriar enjoyed the best year of his career, averaging 48.2 yards per punt and dropping 22 of them inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Despite not having a return longer than 41 yards all season, both Miles Austin and Tyson Thompson were productive on kickoffs and averaged 26 yards per attempt. Terence Newman was the team's most effective punt returner, averaging 10.1 yards and taking one all the way back 56 yards for a touchdown.

JC


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