‘D' Returns To Dallas

Bill Parcells' Cowboys have a number of new stars on offense, but when the Vikings face Dallas today it will be the Cowboys' rock-solid defense hoping to lead the way.

When the Vikings saw the Dallas Cowboys on the opener of the 2004 schedule, the team that they expected to see is much different in key respects than the one they're going to face. And it may well be different than the one opponents will see in December, as head coach Bill Parcells re-tools on the fly with a combination of young and old players.

The biggest change is at quarterback, where Quincy Carter was expected to be the man. However, a second failed drug test in a year convinced Parcells and owner Jerry Jones to dump Carter. Having already released former starter Chad Hutchinson, the Cowboys enter 2004 with two QBs who weren't with the team in 2003. Starting now is veteran Vinny Testaverde. While a glacier in the pocket and no threat to run, Testaverde still has a strong arm and reads defenses extremely well. Pressuring him up the middle will be critical. Parcells will eventually give the team over to Drew Henson, but, after two years playing baseball, Henson still needs time to get into NFL readiness mode.

Parcells also went retro and out of the organization to find the answer to his running game. Troy Hambrick clearly wasn't the answer last year and was released before the team had a replacement for him. Like the quarterback position, this, too, is expected to become a changing of the guard. Future Hall of Famer Eddie George is likely to get the first chance to be the featured back but after a terrible preseason will eventually give way to rookie Julius Jones, who is fighting bruised ribs. All the while, 12-year veteran Richie Anderson remains a factor as a spot runner and full-time receiver. Look for George to get the start and the bulk of the carries if he's effective. If the Vikings stuff him early, expect to see a lot more of Jones.

If going "old school" wasn't enough at quarterback and running back, the wide receivers have become very similar, as Parcells draws on past experience to get future results. Already picking up Terry Glenn in 2003 — a receiver who had his best years under Parcells — he swung a deal to get another former player in Keyshawn Johnson from the Bucs. Johnson is a consummate possession receiver and is expected to play a role similar to what Cris Carter did for so many years with the Vikings — go over the middle, make big catches and score touchdowns. Depth remains an issue, with third-year pro Antonio Bryant trying to get out of Parcells' doghouse. The tight end position is very solid, with Jason Witten and Dan Campbell both capable blockers and receivers.

The Cowboys have one of the league's best left sides of an offensive line, but question marks remain on the right side. In the middle is center Al Johnson, who was penciled in as the starter as a rookie last year before a preseason knee injury wiped out his rookie campaign. He's flanked on the left side by former All-Pros Larry Allen at guard and Flozell Adams at tackle. Both are dominant run blockers and pass protectors. The same can't be said on the right side, however, as two training camp battles emerged. The starters are expected to be guard Andre Gurode and second-year pro Torrin Tucker, with Jacob Rogers right behind Tucker at tackle. They are being pushed by Stephen Peterman and Kurt Vollers, but barring injury Parcells will likely commit to one pair and stick with it.

The numerous changes on offense speak volumes, but it wasn't anything great in 2003. What got Dallas to the playoffs was an impressive defense that shows no signs of taking a step backwards. Up front, the Cowboys have three dominant linemen in tackle La'Roi Glover and ends Greg Ellis and Marcellus Wiley. Wiley, signed away from San Diego, is expected to provide a pass rush like Charles Haley did in the glory years of the Cowboys, while Ellis — the team's leading sacker in 2003 — moves to the right side. The only question is left tackle, where incumbent starter Willie Blade showed improvement last year but was supplanted with Leonardo Carson and Chad Eaton.

The linebackers are good, but painfully thin beyond the starting three. Al Singleton, Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley played all 16 games together last year and became a cohesive unit. While Parcells likes big linebackers and will look to work second-year pro Bradie James into the lineup, the starting three will need to be healthy for the Cowboys defense to click. If they are, they will once again prove why the Cowboys had the top-rated defense in the NFL last year.

Dallas has invested a lot of its top draft slots to address the secondary over the years and have three of those dividends in the starting lineup. In 2003, the Cowboys used their top pick to take shutdown corner Terence Newman, who can blanket just about any receiver and provide help against the run. The safeties are a combination of youth and experience with 2002 No. 1 pick Roy Williams and veteran Darren Woodson manning the top spots and giving the Cowboys the best pair of safeties in the NFC. The only trouble spot may be right corner, where Pete Hunter looks to have the lead in a battle for the starting spot — the only gaping hole in a solid unit.

The Vikings should consider themselves fortunate to be catching the Cowboys early rather than late. The team the Vikings could potentially meet in the playoffs could have Henson, Jones and Bryant as key components. With the speed of the Vikings defense, it may be a much better scenario to face Vinny, Eddie and Keyshawn.


KEY MATCHUP
Kenechi Udeze vs. Flozell Adams —
As the Vikings waited for their pick in the first round of the NFL draft, their eyes kept getting wider at the prospect of USC sack machine Kenechi Udeze being available. When he was, he was appointed a starter by coach Mike Tice before his plane even landed in Minnesota. But his first career start will come against Pro Bowl left tackle Flozell Adams — making this the matchup to watch.

Udeze was rated by many as the top defensive end available in the draft after posting 16-1/2 sacks and five forced fumbles at USC in 2003. However, concerns about a shoulder injury got some teams to back off, but he has shown no lingering effects in training camp or the preseason and is primed for a big rookie season. That said, he might not face a stiffer challenge all year than the All-Pro Adams.

At 6-7, 343 pounds, Adams almost has his own zip code. He is a dominating run blocker who can engulf most defensive ends and move them wherever he wants. But, if he does have a weakness to his game, it's against top speed-rush specialists. Adams is a classic mauler and doesn't have great lateral or backpedal burst. Speed rushers who can loop around him when the quarterback takes a seven-step drop can get to him virtually untouched if they blow Adams off the line.

Udeze's task will be to put pressure on Vinny Testaverde. While he's not a threat to run, if Testaverde can get time in the pocket he has the veteran savvy and strong arm to pick apart the seams of the Vikings defense. It will be Udeze's job to not only pressure Testaverde, but to bring him down and hopefully cause a turnover. Adams' assignment is much simpler — beat up and wear down the rookie and make him a non-factor.

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