Four Cowboys Who Need to Step Up

IRVING, Tex. - It's too early to say Sunday's in-state battle with the Houston Texans is a "must-win" game, but it definitely would help things for the Dallas Cowboys.

Media — both locally and nationally — is starting to circle overhead around Valley Ranch. Players and coaches are tired of answering questions about what's wrong. Fans are tired of hearing the critics who suggest the preseason hype surrounding the team was not deserved.

This is, after all, a Dallas team many expect to be the first to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Through two games, it has looked like a team that very easily could miss the playoffs, much less the NFL's ultimate game.

It used to be that the Cowboys, even after a slow start, could simply grit their collective teeth, flex their muscles and essentially will their way to a victory over a team like the Texans. But this is not the same Houston team Dallas has seen in years past. The Texans started the season by beating division heavyweight Indianapolis, rallied late last week to knock off the Washington Redskins and are one of eight teams with an unblemished 2-0 record.

With that said, who has to come up big for the Cowboys to get off their two-game skid by knocking off the Texans in Houston?

Left tackle Doug Free
Remember a couple of weeks ago, when Washington Redskins offensive tackle Trent Edwards had the daunting task of keeping DeMarcus Ware away from Donovan McNabb … in Williams' first NFL game? Free is in much the same scenario. The game against the Texans won't be his first career start — it will be his 10th — but he is still relatively new as a starting tackle, and he gets the pleasure of tangling Sunday with Houston defensive end Mario Williams.

The Texans raised a lot of eyebrows when they drafted Williams first overall in 2006, ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and hometown product Vince Young. But he has emerged as one of the elite defensive linemen in the NFL. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound Williams is second in the NFL with four sacks in his first two games, and has exceptional strength and speed.

Linebacker DeMarcus Ware
In yet another example of a star pass rusher facing a possibly-not-ready blocker, Ware will line up across from left tackle Rashad Butler, who will be playing in his 27th game over a five-year career, but starting for the first time in place of Duane Brown, who was suspended for four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Even elite tackles have their hands full with Ware, who is arguably the best pass rusher in football. The Cowboys will need to put a lot of pressure on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, who quietly has become one of the game's elite passers, and Ware should be able to lead the charge.

Quarterback Tony Romo
His statistics through two games are pretty pedestrian — he is throwing for 328 yards per game and has completed 66.3 percent of his passes, but he also has just two touchdown passes in his team's two losses.

But Houston's first two opponents have had far more success against the Texans by going to the air than they have running the ball. Peyton Manning and the Colts throw on everyone, but even the Redskins — whose passing offense is not likely to be confused with that of the Colts — had success passing the ball against Houston's suspect defense, picking up 403 of their 421 total yards through the air. Chris Cooley is an elite tight end, and Santana Moss is still very good, but Donovan McNabb's collection of targets don't exactly compare with Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Roy Williams, etc. Plus, the Dallas offensive line is better than Washington's, so Romo not only has better weapons at his disposal, he should have more time to take advantage of them.

Dave Campo
Just as the Dallas offense should look to the skies to find success Sunday, the Cowboys should expect the Texans to do the same. Yes, Arian Foster is a nice "who's he?" story, but the Houston offense is built around the pass.

Schaub blistered the Washington defense last week for 497 passing yards, and has an able group of targets to whom he can throw. Andre Johnson is the NFL's best wideout, and caught 12 passes last week for 158 yards and a touchdown … while playing on a badly sprained ankle. Fellow wideout Kevin Walter added 11 catches for 144 yards, and Owen Daniels is a gifted receiver at tight end.

Ware and the rest of the Dallas front seven need to pressure Schaub, but Campo had better have the secondary ready to tangle with the big, fast, explosive tandem of Johnson and Walter.

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