2010-11 NFL Team Preview: Dallas Cowboys

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 11-5, 4-2
Division finish: 1st NFC East
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 14th, 2nd, 6th, 7th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 2nd, 9th, 20th, 4th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Marion Barber, 932 yards, 7 TD; Felix Jones, 685 yards, 3 TD
Passing: Tony Romo, 4,483 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT
Receiving: Miles Austin, 1,320 yards, 11 TD; Jason Witten, 1,030 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: Bradie James, 113 total tackles; Keith Brooking, 106 total tackles
Sacks: DeMarcus Ware, 11.0 sacks
Interceptions: Mike Jenkins, 5 interceptions

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 12 at Washington: If the Cowboys are facing Donovan McNabb on opening day, they'll be in for a challenge. McNabb is a wily veteran who still has a bit of mobility left in his legs, and he still has the arm to make all the throws. Because of the Cowboys' struggles along the offensive line, this might be the ideal opportunity for the Redskins to break in their new 3-4 defensive system and work out some kinks.

October 17 at Minnesota: The Cowboys return to the site of their playoff loss from last year, and they are going to hope their offensive line plays better than it did back then. Meanwhile, the Cowboys' receiving corps has been improved with the addition of Dez Bryant, and the Vikings have gotten worse at cornerback this offseason. These weaknesses could offset each other and maybe lead to a very close game.

October 25 vs. New York: The Cowboys and the Giants are the two teams with the best shot of winning the NFC East, so winning this matchup will be a huge deal for both teams. The Cowboys’ offensive line has shown minor signs of weakness this preseason, and you can bet the Giants are going to bring the heat and try and rush Tony Romo into making bad throws. The biggest test for the Giants will be stopping the Cowboys’ receivers from picking up yards via short routes. If the Giants’ linebackers are able to play well in coverage, then their defensive line and defensive backfield will take care of the rest of the work and shut down the Cowboys’ offense.

Key Losses

Flozell Adams, OT; Ken Hamlin, FS

Key Returning Players

Miles Austin, WR; Tony Romo, QB; Marion Barber, RB; Felix Jones, RB; Doug Free, OT; Alan Ball, FS; Gerald Sensabaugh, SS; Demarcus Ware, OLB; Anthony Spencer, OLB

Key Draft Picks

Dez Bryant, WR; Sean Lee, LB

Key Free Agent Signings

Kevin Brock, TE

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Alex Barron, OT

Offensive Overview

While the Cowboys have a ton of talent at all the skill positions, their biggest weakness is the pass-blocking abilities of the offensive line. Much was made of the release of left tackle Flozell Adams this offseason, but the truth is that Adams was easily beaten by pass rushers, so that position was already a weakness before his release. Doug Free looks to have beaten former Ram Alex Barron for the starting job, mainly because of Free's athleticism and ability to handle athletic edge rushers, but he lacks the strength to be able to block stronger bull rushers. Left guard Kyle Kosier is a liability in pass protection, but he remains the starter because he can pull outside so well when run-blocking. Center Andre Gurode is a mauler in the run game, and so is right guard Leonard Davis. Davis is also a very steady pass-blocker as well. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie is also good in both run and pass blocking, though he sometimes gets beaten by faster rushers. As a whole, the line does a poor job of picking up stunts, blitzes, and overloads. It can either be the job of the quarterback or the center to read the defense and call protection schemes, but thirty-year-old quarterback Tony Romo should be able to make his own pre-snap reads and call the right protection schemes.

The thing with Romo is that he makes a lot of fantastic plays, so people love him. What gets seen less often is that he often makes some not-so-great plays that hurt the Cowboys, too. He gets incredibly flustered when feeling the heat from the pass rush, so when under pressure, he just plays without thinking and his accuracy is all over the place. Sometimes he makes big gains on broken plays, but other times this style of play leads to costly turnovers. With Romo, you have to take the bad with the good, and the Cowboys' offense will always be inconsistent as long as Romo's leading it.

To eliminate as much of this inconsistency as possible, the Cowboys have built themselves into a run-first offense so Romo doesn't have to carry the team on his back. Marion Barber is a ferocious bruiser who often hits defenders before they can hit him, and to complement his style, the Cowboys use 2008 first-round pick Felix Jones to get to the perimeter. Once Jones finds a hole, he is almost as difficult to catch as Tennesse's Chris Johnson, though Johnson is much tougher to bring down than Jones is. To keep Barber and Jones fresh, Tashard Choice comes into the game at times. While not as fast as Jones or as violent of a runner as Barber, Choice is a good running back who could definitely start for quite a few other teams in the league.

When Romo is playing at his best, the Cowboys' receiving corps allows the offense to be extremely explosive through the air. Miles Austin burst onto the scene last year, catching 81 balls for 1,320 yards, and he will continue to be Romo's main target this year. Rookie Dez Bryant is a phenomenal player, but like most rookie wideouts, will probably have a tough time learning an NFL route tree, so his impact likely won't be felt until the second half of the season. Since he has missed a bit of offseason action due to injuries, it would be easy to completely write him off and expect nothing from him. However, he, like Michael Crabtree last year, seems to be incredibly pro-ready, so he should be able to make an impact as a decent number two option towards the end of the year. Behind the two of them will be Sam Hurd, a fairly athletic receiver that doesn't run very precise routes, but whose speed can create matchup problems from the slot. Receiver Patrick Crayton, who possesses a similar skill set to Hurd, was just recently traded to San Diego, so the number four receiver looks to be Roy Williams, who is fast but struggles at beating bump-and-run coverage. Tight end Jason Witten is not only a good run-blocker, but he is also quite athletic and has a very good set of hands. While this offense will cycle up and down, it definitely has all of the skill position players necessary to put points on the board.

Defensive Overview

The Cowboys have an atypical defense, in the sense that they run a successful 3-4 without a massive nose tackle who clogs multiple holes. Jay Ratliff isn't the biggest nose tackle in the league by far, but he still forces teams to double-team him because of his speed and excellent technique. Ends Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky are both extremely disruptive in the run game, and help clog the offensive line so the linebackers can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The linebacking corps is the team's biggest strength. Most football fans have heard the name of DeMarcus Ware, who led the league in sacks in 2008, coming only two and a half short of Michael Strahan's all-time sack record. Strong outside linebacker Anthony Spencer is almost as good as Ware, but his production is less flashy because he lines up on the strong side and is often blocked by both a tight end and an offensive lineman, instead of lining up on the weak side, where Ware often plays one-on-one against offensive tackles. Strong inside linebacker Bradie James was their key run-stopper, wrapping up the ball carrier. Weak inside linebacker Keith Brooking has lost a little bit of speed, and he could possibly be replaced at some point in the season by second-round rookie Sean Lee. Either way, Brooking is still a good defender, so there are no weaknesses among the linebackers.

Free safety Alan Ball is being relied on to replace longtime starter Ken Hamlin, who was released this offseason. So far, Ball has displayed poor tackling skills, and he hasn't been very instinctive in zone coverage. Gerald Sensabaugh is the starting strong safety, rushes to the ball immediately as soon as it's released. However, because Ball is a poor tackler, Sensabaugh may have to play run support, which means he won't be able to play the deep middle zone. Although Ball lacks the natural instincts to be as much of an impact there as Sensabaugh, the Cowboys have to hope his athleticism can make up for some of the times when he will get beaten. Cornerback Mike Jenkins really bloomed a lot last year, and is part of a very solid cornerback tandem alongside Terence Newman. Nickel corner Orlando Scandrick gets beaten easily by receivers going across the formation and would not be able to provide quality play as a starter if Jenkins or Newman goes down.

Special Teams Overview

The biggest story on special teams is their switch from placekicker Nick Folk, who was a dreadful 6 for 14 beyond the 40-yard line, to David Buehler. Buehler has impressed so far in the preseason, making 10 of 11 field goals.

The Cowboys' kickoff coverage team played well, averaging 7th in kickoff return distance allowed despite their average kickoff distance ranking 9th in the league. They weren't so hot in punt coverage, ranking 9th in average punt distance yet 15th in average punt return distance allowed. In the return game, Patrick Crayton had a very good average of 12.1 yards per punt return. On kickoff returns, Felix Jones had a pretty good average of 22.6 yards.

Head Coach: Wade Phillips

Phillips is a good defensive coordinator, but he has yet to prove himself as a head coach. His Cowboys teams simply haven't held together down the stretch despite starting every year with one of the most talented rosters in the league. The Cowboys show what they're capable of at the start of each season, when they are completely dominant. Then towards the end of the season, they continually fall apart. This is a sign of a team that lacks discipline and mental toughness. Fair or not, Phillips is expected to win Super Bowl rings; anything less than that is a failure given the talent level of the Cowboys year in and year out.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Miles Austin, WR; Doug Free, OT

Season Prediction

2nd NFC East

On both sides of the ball, this team has one player whose performance will determine the fate of the entire unit. On offense, the Cowboys will only go as far as the inconsistent Tony Romo takes them. On defense, Alan Ball is the weak spot and he will be tested early and often by quarterbacks. If he can hold up under the pressure, the defense will be a lot better. The Cowboys have to show that last year wasn't just a fluke and the exception to their trend of collapsing at the end of the season. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.


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