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Possible Storylines – San Diego Chargers vs. Dallas Cowboys

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Once again, our Texas correspondent offers up his hard won (and pretty much involuntarily acquired) insight on the Chargers' opponent in Week 1 of the pre-season.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

A Comparison of the Teams

These are the two NFL teams that I know the most about; one by choice, the other by osmosis from living in their home market for the last 10 years. While the franchises have (at times) looked similar in years past, their paths and identities diverged in 2014.

Offense: In 2014, the Bolts struggled with injuries on offense both on the line and with the skill positions. The interior offensive line failed in both metrics and the eyeball test. This led to the Chargers dropping from the #3 offense in the league (according to the DVOA rank) in 2013 to a decent, but not spectacular, #10 ranking in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys investment in and patience with their offensive line in previous seasons yielded huge dividends in 2014. Their offensive DVOA rank went from #11 in 2013 to #4 in 2014. Along the way, Tony Romo had one of his best statistical years ever and did not have any late game breakdowns that cost the Cowboys games in 2014. Demarco Murray earned Offensive Player of the Year honors while rushing for more than 1,800 yards. And, the Cowboys came within one controversial play away from the NFC Championship game, while the Bolts missed the playoffs.

Defense: By the DVOA measurements, both teams improved in 2014 over where they were in 2013. Football outsiders ranked Dallas 30th in the league in 2013 but this had improved to 22nd in 2014. The Cowboys had a pleasant surprise in the resurrection of Rolando McClain's career and growth in a young defensive line last season.

The Chargers also showed some improvement defensively in 2014. By DVOA measurements, the Bolts were dead last in the league defensively in 2013. That had improved to #24 by the time the 2014 had finished.  For the Cowboys, their across the board improvement meant a decent run in the playoffs.  For the Bolts, the slight improvement in the defense was not enough to offset the offense's decline and they were watching the playoffs with the rest of us fans in January.

Overall:  An incompletion late in a road playoff game in Green Bay (that resulted in a clarifying rule change/interpretation) kept the Cowboys from playing for shot at the Super Bowl.  But all is not well in Dallas.  In a salary cap and free agent era, the Cowboys elected to pay Dez Bryant, after the Cowboys and Broncos figured out how much their big-gun WR's should be paid.  That meant that the 2014 Offensive Player of the Year Demarco Murray had to be lowballed, which he was, and (of course) he walked.  Even worse from the Dallas perspective is that Murray joins the Bolts former 1st round pick Ryan Mathews in hated divisional rival Philadelphia.

The semi-unstated rationale from the Cowboys perspective was that as long as the line could be kept together, any ole' back would do for a good running game. The team then used actual money to prove that mindset by acquiring Darren McFadden to add to a committee already composed of Randle and Dunbar.

There were some additions to the defense in the draft and free-agency, including signing Greg Hardy to a one year "prove it" deal. (This was widely denounced in North Texas, although the peculiar flip side of that coin is that many wanted to team to trade for Adrian Peterson.) The Cowboys believe that they are one of the elite teams in the NFC this season.

The Bolts played some quality games in 2014, but seemed to hit their peak in weeks 2 through 6, limping (both metaphorically and physically) to a 9-7 record and looking pretty awful in stretches during the last 9 games of the season.  While the Cowboys invested draft picks into making what is now a superb offensive line, the Bolts leaned towards the free agent route. The quality of the Chargers' end product remains to be seen.

Team Strengths

For the Bolts, it remains the offense and in particular, Philip Rivers. There was a lot that went wrong with the team's offense last year and unlike 2013, El Capitan visibly played a few rounds of hero ball in the last two months of the season with some disastrous results. PR has established himself as far more than a game manager, but he still needs protection, a credible running game, and security blankets (Gates and Woodhead) to put up elite numbers. If the Bolts have fixed the line and the running game, 2015 could be a great year for the Bolts offense.

Tony Romo in 2014 looked a lot like PR in 2013; 70% completion percentage, elite TD:INT ratio and relaxed play by a QB not carrying the whole load on his shoulders. The Cowboys have a talented stable of receivers, including their own veteran warhorse of a TE in Jason Witten and a bona fide game changer on the outside in Dez Bryant. Last season, the question around the offense was if they could run the ball. With the departure of Murray, that question has emerged again.

Weaknesses

Other than the first round, the Bolts went straight defense with their draft. The Cowboys also went heavy into the defense with the draft, plus a few free agent additions. While both teams saw improvement in their defensive squads last year, both teams have a lot of questions about their ability to keep opponents from scoring. The attention both units got is the offseason speaks to where the respective front offices saw holes.

The Bolts are concerned about their front 7 which has had issues in stopping the run and generating a pass rush since the days of Jamal Williams and Shawne Merriman.  The Cowboys were pleasantly surprised by their front 7 last year, which performed much better than anticipated. The typical football fan in North Texas figured another horrible defensive season was on tap when LB Sean Lee could not even make it out of the first padded practice with a healthy ACL and 2014's first round pick Demarcus Lawrence broke his foot in pre-season.

Instead, Rolando McClain was reclaimed from the NFL scrap heap and rediscovered his ability. Other younger guys on the defensive line (the Cowboys play a 4-3) played better than expected. The issue for the Cowboys was the loss of a lot of talent in the linebacker corps in the offseason and the suspensions.  Hardy and McClain will be on the shelf for the first 4 games. Lee will be back, but he seems to be the LB equivalent of Buster Davis. The secondary is adequate, but there are some questions about the pecking order and abilities with the DB's.

What to Watch For

When the starters are playing:

  1. Who plays in what spot on the Bolts O-line?  And how do they do protecting PR and Clemons against Hardy, Mincy, Crawford, and the other members of the Cowboys stable of D-linemen?  Can they open some holes for Gordon?

  2. Speaking of Gordon, tomorrow night will be his first impression to the fan base that does not watch a lot of college ball.

  3. Can the Bolts produce a pass rush?  Can they harass Weedon (Romo will not play) and any other Cowboy QB?  The Cowboy O-line is impressive and one of the best the Bolts will face this season.  Don't judge the pass rush based on this game's 1st team vs. 1st team pass rush battle.

  4. Where and in what priority do the Bolts LB's play?  And can they stay clean enough against the Cowboys O-line starters to make tackles and keep the running game in check?

  5. Who runs for the Cowboys?  Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar are at the top of the chart, but early reports from the ‘boys training camp has been filled with glowing reviews for Gus Johnson. (McFadden will not play. In what I am certain is a shocking turn of events for any Bolts fan, Run DMC is having an issue with his hamstring and is on the shelf.)

  6. Who plays LB for the Cowboys?  Do not be surprised to see Andrew Gachkar playing a lot of LB.

    For those of us that are not big Donald Brown fans, this game will give some of the UDFA's buried on the depth chart to simply outplay him and not give the front office and coaches any choice but to keep the better football player. So far, there have not been too many predictions about who might be the long-shot to make the team that the fans will fall in love with over the next few weeks, but I'm sure he is there.

For about 3 quarters of this game, It will be about trying to win jobs. But in the 1st quarter, there should be some interesting things for both fan bases to watch for.