A Comparison of the Teams
Last year, I posted a story about the similarities between the Bolts and ‘Boys. That was in Week 3. As the season came to an end, the team similarities remained fairly striking:
Offenses: DVOA seems to think there's a pretty large gap between these offenses. They ranked the Bolts at #3 in the league last year and the Cowboys at #11. Bottom line – both teams were pretty good when they had the ball last season. Do not read too much into that; the Cowboys were 5th in the NFL last year in scoring and the Bolts were 12th. The Chargers could not get into the end zone enough times and the Cowboys had real issues with 3rd down conversions.
Defenses: The Cowboys were a horrid 26th in the league last year in points allowed. The Bolts did OK in that stat, with a slightly above-average 12th. In yards allowed, the ‘boys were dead last in the NFL in 2013; the Bolts were 23rd in that category for 2013. However, if you are a follower of the DVOA stuff, Football Outsiders ranked Dallas 30th in the league last year and our own Bolts dead last. Bottom line: Neither team played defense at all well last year.
Overall: The Cowboys went into the last regular season game in a familiar spot; with an 8-7 record, they just had to beat a divisional opponent and win the NFC East for a playoff appearance. For the third year in a row and against the third different divisional opponent, the Cowboys completed the trifecta of failure by losing at home (it was the Eagles turn last season). To be fair, it is probably just as well. In the Wild Card round, the ‘boys would have hosted a New Orleans Saints team that set a record for first downs in a single game by moving the chains FORTY TWO times in a 49-17 Sunday Night nationally televised humiliation of the Cowboys in November.
In week 17, the Bolts were also 8-7 and needing a win (and some help) to make the playoffs with a Wild Card berth. Only a missed field goal was the difference between the Chargers postseason appearance and spending a fourth January in a row watching the playoffs at home. Bottom Line: These two teams were only a couple of plays or injuries away from having different ends to the 2013 season.
For the Bolts, it begins with Philip Rivers and flows through skilled play-makers at wide receiver, in the backfield, and at tight end. After the disaster of 2012, the team has reinforced the offensive line with draft choices, FA signings, and one of the best line coaches in the game. Rivers' supporting crew, featuring Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead are challenges to any defense. The Bolts also rediscovered the benefits of having a reliable running game last year, with Ryan Mathews having the best season of his career.
Similarly, the Cowboys have invested in their own line, with their last 3 first round draft picks. That line, bad in 2011 and shaky in 2012, became an effective unit last year and added 1st round draft pick Zach Martin. He was the guard on the other side of the Notre Dame center from the Bolts 3rd round pick, Chris Watt. The offensive line is really the strongest unit on the Cowboys roster (and one of the better units in the league) and one of the reasons that most Cowboy fans are fairly optimistic about the offense this year.
The line provides protection for Tony Romo, statistically one of the game’s best QB’s. Rome passes to a Pro-Bowl receiver (Dez Bryant), a veteran Pro-Bowl TE (Jason Witten) and other skilled receivers like Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. The Cowboys are also hoping that a TE out of SDSU (Gavin Escobar) drafted in the 2nd round last year can take over from Witten as the go-to TE. The Cowboys also hand the ball off to DeMarco Murray, who averaged 5.2 yards per rush last season, despite the fact Dallas did not run that often in 2013.
For both teams, the condition of the defense has to be the most worrisome to the head coaches. The Cowboys are counting a whole bunch of unproven and untested players to bolster what was a horrible unit last year.
That defense, the main source of football anxiety in North Texas, has already suffered two significant injuries. Sean Lee, the only real impact player on the defensive side of the ball (when healthy, which is not often), was taken out by Zach Martin on the first day of OTA’s. Lee ended up tearing his MCL and partially tearing his ACL during "non-contact" drills by a rookie trying to impress his coaches. The team has also lost 2nd round draft pick DE Demarcus Lawrence for 2-3 months with a broken foot last week. While not injured long term, Morris Claiborne, the 5th overall pick in 2011 will sit out Thursday with a calf strain.
The Bolts will provide a good test for the Cowboys defense. The Cowboys reinforced that defense with 7 out of their 9 draft picks (5 were 7th rounders). They will also be getting back a few defensive linemen (such as Tyrone Crawford) that were lost for the season in the 2013. The draft choices and several players coming off the 2013 IR list will be playing against their first NFL competition in game conditions. We may see the Cowboys 1st team defense a little longer than usual on Thursday Night.
Until Monday morning, I figured that the opposite would also be true. And if Tony Romo would be playing at all on Thursday Night that could possibly have been the case. Word on Monday morning from the Cowboys though is that Romo will watch while Brandon Weeden, Caleb Hanie, and Dustin Vaughn run the Cowboys offense. If the Chargers secondary looks a lot better on Thursday, remember, they will be defending against passes thrown by Cleveland’s latest failed QB experiment.
I am disappointed that Romo will not be playing, as I was hoping to get a hint about improvements to the Bolts pass defense. It would be fantastic if Weeden was representative of the quality of QB the Bolts D will face this season, but that just is not the case.
What will be interesting to watch is how the Bolts front 7 deals with a talented line and some capable young runners. I do not expect that the Cowboys first team offense will be on the field much, but the first two series may give us some insight into Manti Te’o’s progress, whether the defensive line has improved over last year’s crew and what the LB rotation might be.
What to Watch For
When the starters are playing:
1) Can the Bolts front 7 stop the Cowboys running game? If not, this could be an early sign that the team needs a lot more work dealing with physical, talented blockers. With the NFC West on tap this season, the Chargers will be seeing quite a few of those.
2) Can the secondary keep Brandon Weeden from completing passes? If not, this should be a cause for concern, even though receivers like Dez Bryant are fairly rare.
3) Can the Bolts score on a shaky defensive unit? There should not be any red zone issues against a front 7 composed of Huey, Dewey, Louie, and I Forget His Name.
4) Can everybody stay healthy? Yes, RM 24 and M80, I am looking at you.
5) How will an average secondary cover Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd, Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green, and Danny Woodhead if they are all on the field at the same time?
Do not get too excited if even the 2nd and 3rd team offenses do well. Without Romo, the Cowboys really do not have too much coming into this game, except for a capable O-line and decent backs. And always with pre-season games, keep your eye out for the August All Pro making a bid to get one of the 53 roster spots or auditioning for another team for the practice squad.