Scouting the Cowboys: Offense

Will the banged up Colts be able to stop a resurgent Cowboys offense led by Miles Austin and Dez Bryant? Brad Keller takes a look.

Offensive Line:

Despite their early season struggles and the fact that they've had to pass the ball a significant amount to stay in or get back in games, the Cowboys have not allowed a lot of sacks.  They've allowed 19 sacks on 432 dropbacks, Tony Romo's escapability and quick release padded those numbers slightly and they have given up sacks more frequently since Jon Kitna became the starter. 

Left tackle Doug Free has taken over for the the departed Flozell Adams, who was a fixture on the left side for a number of years.  Free is a large man at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds and is not light on his feet.  Dwight Freeney should be able to get around Free and get to the quarterback provided he is not so consumed with rushing the passer that he forgets to defend the run.

Dallas runs very well outside the tackles and Indianapolis does not defend the run well in those areas due to the fact that Freeney and Robert Mathis are often more interested in sacks in the passing game than tackles in the running game.  The Cowboys are averaging 6.73 yards per carry around left end to Free's side of the field and 5.71 yards per attempt around right end to right tackle Marc Colombo's side.

Those are really the only areas where Dallas has been effective running the ball this season, so if Mathis and Freeney can maintain their lanes and Philip Wheeler and Tyjuan Hagler can use their speed to pursue the ball carrier, then the Cowboys should be forced to pass the ball.

Daniel Muir was limited in practice this week and that will have an adverse affect on the run defense up the middle, but Antonio Johnson will be available and has been playing well.  With center Andre Gurode and guards Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis, the Cowboys have a great deal of beef and name recognition on the interior of their offensive line, but have struggled to run the ball up the gut.  They are averaging only 3.85 yards per carry up the middle, which is 21st in the league, whereas the Colts are allowing an average of 3.65 yards per attempt in that area, which ranks tenth.

It is possible that the big men on the inside could assert their will over the Indianapolis defensive tackles, especially if Eric Foster or Fili Moala come in for Muir, but it is not likely.  If the run can be stopped around the perimeter, Indianapolis should be able to shut the Dallas ground game — ranked 27th in the NFL with an average of 89.4 yards per game — down.

When the Cowboys become one dimensional, it will be critical for Foster, Muir, and Johnson to generate a pass rush, since Freeney and Mathis have tough match-ups and will probably be double teamed.  Foster has two sacks in his last three games and is starting to develop some pass rushing moxie.  The Colts need him to continue to develop that and step up his game on Sunday.

Wide Receivers:

Rookie Dez Bryant and budding star Miles Austin are grabbing most of the headlines and touchdowns for this receiving corps, but this is actually a very balanced passing attack.  Five Cowboys have 30 or more receptions.  Offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jason Garrett likes to spread the ball around and it shows in the reception distribution on this team.

Tight end Jason Witten is enjoying a resurgence this season, leading the team with 60 receptions, though he is more of a possession receiver at this point and not as much of a red zone target, as only three of those catches have gone for touchdowns. 

Pat Angerer will need to be the point man to cover passes underneath in the middle to Witten and checkdowns to running back Felix Jones.  He has shown a tendency to "bail out" at the snap and either run with his back to the line of scrimmage or turn so that he is perpendicular to the line.  He needs to back pedal in this game and attack anything that moves.  Dallas has enough deep threats in Bryant, Austin, and Roy E. Williams, who are all averaging over 12 yards per catch and each have at least five touchdown receptions, so their focus on offense will be to set up the running game and attack the Colts over the top. 

Without Kelvin Hayden — who has been held out of practice all week — to anchor the secondary, Jacob Lacey, Justin Tryon, and Jerraud Powers will need to be physical and try not to get bullied by Williams, Austin, and Bryant, who are all at least 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds.  The Indianapolis cornerbacks have had issues in the past with big receivers and the Cowboys have a bunch of them.  They are large, fast, and athletic and Antoine Bethea and Aaron Francisco will need to play back and try to keep everything in front of them.

Running Backs:

Marion Barber has not practiced this week, which means that Felix Jones will get the start.  Jones is an exciting and explosive player, but he tends to waste a great deal of energy and movement getting ready to make his decision and explode.  The Colts have enough speed on defense to contain him on the edges, make him run east-to-west, and chase him down and make the tackle. 

Wheeler and Hagler will need to stay vigilant and stay on their toes.  The defensive line will need to mind their gaps and Angerer will need to come in fast and tackle sure when the tackles create a pursuit lane for him.  This is still the same team that is only slightly better on a per game basis at running the ball than Indianapolis — the Colts average 82.6 yards per game compared to 84.4 for the Cowboys — so this is not as daunting a challenge as the Chiefs or Chargers, but Jones is dangerous enough as a runner and receiver that the Indianapolis defenders will need to pay attention and stay focused.

Quarterback:

Whether Kitna or Romo has taken the snaps for this team this season, the issue has not been yards or touchdowns.  It has been turnovers.  The primary reason that Kitna never caught on as a full time starter is that he is too careless with the ball and fumbles too frequently when sacked.  He has thrown eight interceptions in 200 attempts this season and has been sacked 12 times. 

He has a tendency to hold onto the ball in hopes of being able to make something happen down the field.  Even though Romo has a reputation as a gun slinger, Kitna is more reckless and checks down and throws underneath to the tight end less than Romo.  Kitna will try to force the ball into a tight spot even if a play is not there, trusting an old arm to make a throw that it can no longer make. 

He hasn't lasted this long in the league by being a bad player, though.  He is efficient and effective — and occasionally lethal — when he has time to throw and a clean pocket in which to operate.  When he starts to feel the pressure, he can be easily rattled and does have a tendency to fumble the ball. 

The key here will be to make the Cowboys need to throw the ball, put the game in Kitna's hands, and turn up the heat.  He has not shown throughout the course of his career that he can handle sustained pressure, so Freeney, Mathis, and Foster will need to keep applying it and get him to cough the ball up.

As the Colts opponents learned the past few weeks, the best way to stop a potent offense is to take the ball away from them.  Indianapolis has not been able to force turnovers since they had five against the Bengals in Week 10.  They will have opportunities to take the ball away from Kitna and the Cowboys on Sunday and they need to convert on those opportunities in order to give their offense more shots at the end zone.


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Despite their early season struggles and the fact that they've had to pass the ball a significant amount to stay in or get back in games, the Cowboys have not allowed a lot of sacks.  They've allowed 19 sacks on 432 dropbacks, Tony Romo's escapability and quick release padded those numbers slightly and they have given up sacks more frequently since Jon Kitna became the starter. 

Left tackle Doug Free has taken over for the the departed Flozell Adams, who was a fixture on the left side for a number of years.  Free is a large man at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds and is not light on his feet.  Dwight Freeney should be able to get around Free and get to the quarterback provided he is not so consumed with rushing the passer that he forgets to defend the run.

Dallas runs very well outside the tackles and Indianapolis does not defend the run well in those areas due to the fact that Freeney and Robert Mathis are often more interested in sacks in the passing game than tackles in the running game.  The Cowboys are averaging 6.73 yards per carry around left end to Free's side of the field and 5.71 yards per attempt around right end to right tackle Marc Colombo's side.

Those are really the only areas where Dallas has been effective running the ball this season, so if Mathis and Freeney can maintain their lanes and Philip Wheeler and Tyjuan Hagler can use their speed to pursue the ball carrier, then the Cowboys should be forced to pass the ball.

Daniel Muir was limited in practice this week and that will have an adverse affect on the run defense up the middle, but Antonio Johnson will be available and has been playing well.  With center Andre Gurode and guards Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis, the Cowboys have a great deal of beef and name recognition on the interior of their offensive line, but have struggled to run the ball up the gut.  They are averaging only 3.85 yards per carry up the middle, which is 21st in the league, whereas the Colts are allowing an average of 3.65 yards per attempt in that area, which ranks tenth.

It is possible that the big men on the inside could assert their will over the Indianapolis defensive tackles, especially if Eric Foster or Fili Moala come in for Muir, but it is not likely.  If the run can be stopped around the perimeter, Indianapolis should be able to shut the Dallas ground game — ranked 27th in the NFL with an average of 89.4 yards per game — down.

When the Cowboys become one dimensional, it will be critical for Foster, Muir, and Johnson to generate a pass rush, since Freeney and Mathis have tough match-ups and will probably be double teamed.  Foster has two sacks in his last three games and is starting to develop some pass rushing moxie.  The Colts need him to continue to develop that and step up his game on Sunday.

Rookie Dez Bryant and budding star Miles Austin are grabbing most of the headlines and touchdowns for this receiving corps, but this is actually a very balanced passing attack.  Five Cowboys have 30 or more receptions.  Offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jason Garrett likes to spread the ball around and it shows in the reception distribution on this team.

Tight end Jason Witten is enjoying a resurgence this season, leading the team with 60 receptions, though he is more of a possession receiver at this point and not as much of a red zone target, as only three of those catches have gone for touchdowns. 

Pat Angerer will need to be the point man to cover passes underneath in the middle to Witten and checkdowns to running back Felix Jones.  He has shown a tendency to \"bail out\" at the snap and either run with his back to the line of scrimmage or turn so that he is perpendicular to the line.  He needs to back pedal in this game and attack anything that moves.  Dallas has enough deep threats in Bryant, Austin, and Roy E. Williams, who are all averaging over 12 yards per catch and each have at least five touchdown receptions, so their focus on offense will be to set up the running game and attack the Colts over the top. 

Without Kelvin Hayden — who has been held out of practice all week — to anchor the secondary, Jacob Lacey, Justin Tryon, and Jerraud Powers will need to be physical and try not to get bullied by Williams, Austin, and Bryant, who are all at least 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds.  The Indianapolis cornerbacks have had issues in the past with big receivers and the Cowboys have a bunch of them.  They are large, fast, and athletic and Antoine Bethea and Aaron Francisco will need to play back and try to keep everything in front of them.

Marion Barber has not practiced this week, which means that Felix Jones will get the start.  Jones is an exciting and explosive player, but he tends to waste a great deal of energy and movement getting ready to make his decision and explode.  The Colts have enough speed on defense to contain him on the edges, make him run east-to-west, and chase him down and make the tackle. 

Wheeler and Hagler will need to stay vigilant and stay on their toes.  The defensive line will need to mind their gaps and Angerer will need to come in fast and tackle sure when the tackles create a pursuit lane for him.  This is still the same team that is only slightly better on a per game basis at running the ball than Indianapolis — the Colts average 82.6 yards per game compared to 84.4 for the Cowboys — so this is not as daunting a challenge as the Chiefs or Chargers, but Jones is dangerous enough as a runner and receiver that the Indianapolis defenders will need to pay attention and stay focused.

Whether Kitna or Romo has taken the snaps for this team this season, the issue has not been yards or touchdowns.  It has been turnovers.  The primary reason that Kitna never caught on as a full time starter is that he is too careless with the ball and fumbles too frequently when sacked.  He has thrown eight interceptions in 200 attempts this season and has been sacked 12 times. 

He has a tendency to hold onto the ball in hopes of being able to make something happen down the field.  Even though Romo has a reputation as a gun slinger, Kitna is more reckless and checks down and throws underneath to the tight end less than Romo.  Kitna will try to force the ball into a tight spot even if a play is not there, trusting an old arm to make a throw that it can no longer make. 

He hasn't lasted this long in the league by being a bad player, though.  He is efficient and effective — and occasionally lethal — when he has time to throw and a clean pocket in which to operate.  When he starts to feel the pressure, he can be easily rattled and does have a tendency to fumble the ball. 

The key here will be to make the Cowboys need to throw the ball, put the game in Kitna's hands, and turn up the heat.  He has not shown throughout the course of his career that he can handle sustained pressure, so Freeney, Mathis, and Foster will need to keep applying it and get him to cough the ball up.

As the Colts opponents learned the past few weeks, the best way to stop a potent offense is to take the ball away from them.  Indianapolis has not been able to force turnovers since they had five against the Bengals in Week 10.  They will have opportunities to take the ball away from Kitna and the Cowboys on Sunday and they need to convert on those opportunities in order to give their offense more shots at the end zone.

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