In 2011, the Cowboys finished 11th in the NFL in offensive yardage with 373.5 a game. They were 18th in rushing yardage (112.9) and seventh in passing (262.2). Dallas was 15th in the league in scoring with 23.1 points per game.
Dallas was 3-1 in the preseason. Last year, they were an NFL-best 4-1 when trailing at the start of the fourth quarter. But the Cowboys also blew five fourth-quarter leads, including the one in a critical home game against the Giants on Dec. 11. They were the league’s fifth-most penalized team in 2011 with 7.1 infractions a game and rushed for only five touchdowns in 16 games.
Several Cowboys suffered injuries in the preseason. The most serious was Jason Witten’s lacerated spleen and internal bleeding. The seven-time Pro Bowler is not expected to play in the opener. His backup the previous four years,
Quarterback Tony Romo is still the point man for the Dallas offense. Romo is 47-30 as a starter in the regular season. Last year, he had a career-high 102.5 passer rating while throwing 31 touchdown passes against only 10 interceptions. He was also sacked a career-high 36 times, one reason the Cowboys reshuffled their offensive line (more on that later). Romo has a quick release, he’s accurate (career 64.5 completion percentage) and few quarterbacks are better at using their feet to bide time in and out of the pocket until a receiver breaks open. Dallas has a new backup in Kyle Orton, who has 69 starts in the NFL.
Explosive second-year pro DeMarco Murray is the starting running back. Murray is a dual threat who rushed for 897 yards and caught 26 passes in 13 games. He broke his ankle in the first game against the Giants last December but is back to full strength. Felix Jones is a dangerous backup who doubles as the third-down back. Jones stepped in for Murray and rushed for 116 yards on 16 carries vs. the Giants in the season finale. He has breakaway speed and a knack for turning potential losses into big gains. Another back, Phillip Tanner, has a broken bone in his right hand. The new fullback is Lawrence Vickers, who played for Houston last season after five seasons in Cleveland. He is a strong lead blocker who has cleared holes for a 1,000-yard rusher in four of his first six seasons.
The Cowboys have a group of tall wide receivers, with Austin, Bryant and Kevin Ogletree all standing 6-1 or taller. But they no longer have Laurent Robinson, who caught three touchdown passes in two games against the Giants last season. He signed as a free agent with Jacksonville. Austin, normally Dallas’ most targeted receiver, is a big, smooth athlete who is a good route runner and has a large strike zone. He is also the Cowboys’ gadget specialist and is capable of running with the ball. Bryant appears to be focused and determined and he has the speed to go deep and the strength to work the middle of the field. Ogletree is the third wideout. Dwayne Harris could also see action, but the wild card in the receiving corps is rookie Cole Beasley, a 5-8 rookie free agent speedster, who, like Ogletree, caught 10 passes in the preseason.
With Witten sidelined, John Phillips is the first-team tight end. He has limited experience, with 32 games played in three years (he spent the 2010 season on injured reserve). Phillips is a stout blocker with 22 career receptions. James Hanna and newly-acquired Colin Cochart are the backups until Witten returns.
Dallas has a new line coach in Bill Callahan, but the projected five starters on his revamped front did not play a down together in the preseason. The Cowboys’ tackles switched sides, with second-year pro Tyron Smith moving from right to left and Doug Free going the other way. They have two new guards in Mackenzy Bernadeau and Livings, free agents from Carolina and Cincinnati, respectively. Costa, the center, is the only lineman playing the same position he manned in 2011, when he started all 16 games. Smith, the ninth overall selection in the 2011 draft, is still only 21 years old, but he upgrades the crucial position that protects Romo’s blind side. Costa made the team as a rookie free agent in 2010 and has steadily improved. He is quick, smart and alert. Free is a rugged competitor who should flourish on the right side. Dallas added depth on the line on Friday, when they acquired seven-year veteran Ryan Cook in a trade with Miami.
The Cowboys ranked 14th in the NFL in defense in 2011, allowing 343.2 yards a game. They were seventh against the run (99.1) and 23rd vs. the pass (244.1). Dallas was 16th in scoring defense, giving up 21.7 points a game.
The defense is also nursing several injuries. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff has a high ankle sprain and played in just one preseason game. DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher all have sore left hamstrings that limited them in August. Rookie corner Morris Claiborne has a mild knee sprain while safety Danny McCray missed the preseason finale with a stinger.
Rob Ryan coordinates an active defense that uses multiple packages and a lot of late movement in an effort to confuse blockers and confound protection calls. The Cowboys constantly pressure quarterbacks with an array of complex blitzes.
The starting defensive line of Kenyon Coleman, Ratliff and Hatcher has a combined 26 years of NFL experience. Coleman, who is in his second tour of duty with Dallas, is a rugged run defender. Ratliff, a Pro Bowler each of the previous four seasons, is a hard-to-move anchor in the middle who is also unusually quick and athletic for a player in that position. Hatcher, a college tight end who led the Dallas lineman with 4.5 sacks last season, is a steady, high-motor player. Marcus Spears is a productive backup and Sean Lissemore can play any of the three positions up front.
The best player on the defense is Ware, the outside linebacker who has 99.5 sacks since entering the league in 2005 and has been selected to each of the last six Pro Bowls. Last year, he was second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks, including 1.5 in the finale vs. the Giants. Widely regarded as the league’s finest outside linebacker, Ware normally lines up on the weak side. But he often jumps around the formation before the snap as part of Dallas’ ongoing effort to confuse the opposition. Ware is an explosive and instinctive pass rusher who has a plan and can counterpunch in an instant. The other outside backer is Spencer, a physical and durable player who had 6.0 sacks last year.
Inside linebacker Sean Lee is the leader of the defense. He is a smart, instinctive player who led the Cowboys with 131 tackles last season – 52 more than the player with the next-highest total. Lee’s performance was even more impressive, considering he played much of the season with a wrap on his left hand to protect a dislocated wrist. Dan Connor and Bruce Carter share the other inside spot. Connor is stronger vs. the run, while Carter is better in pass coverage.
The Giants passed for 731 yards and five touchdowns in two games vs. Dallas last season but will face a new and improved secondary in the opener. The Cowboys have two new corners: veteran Brandon Carr, signed as a free agent from Kansas City, and Claiborne, the sixth overall selection in this year’s draft. The Cowboys traded up in the first round to secure Claiborne. Carr has solid coverage skills in both man and zone defenses. Claiborne is an athletic and talented player with tremendous potential. Former starter Mike Jenkins last week came off the physically unable to perform list (he had offseason shoulder surgery) but is not expected to face the Giants. Orlando Scandrick is currently the top reserve. Gerald Sensabaugh, who started all 16 games last season, is a solid free safety. The new strong safety is Barry Church, who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and distinguished himself as a reserve and on special teams the previous two seasons.
Kicker Dan Bailey had a terrific rookie season, hitting 32 of 37 field goal attempts, including 26 in a row, and scoring 135 points, the fourth-highest total in the NFC. He booted touchbacks on 24 of 67 kickoffs. Chris Jones punted in the 2011 season finale vs. the Giants and has retained the job. He had a 42.5-yard gross average and a 38.4-yard net average on 17 preseason kicks. Felix Jones averaged 26.6 yards on seven kickoff returns last year and will apparently handle that chore in the opener. Bryant, who burned the Giants for a 93-yard touchdown in 2010, is the punt returner.