Dallas Cowboys: Key Stat

The new Tampa 2 defense is designed to reduce the number of big plays the Dallas Cowboys give up in passing game because the safeties play so deep.

Defensive line coach Rod Marinell also hopes it also creates more negative plays in the running game.

The Cowboys had only 35 tackles for loss against the run last season, 31st in the NFL. Tampa Bay led the league with 89.

Wow.

Marinelli believes defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff, if he can ever get healthy, can be disruptive players in the scheme.

"This defense is all about speed, quickness and up-the-field pressure," Marinelli said. "We want to be disruptive every play."

If his defensive line can create more negative plays, then the Cowboys will force more teams into third-and-long situations where the Tampa 2 scheme works best.
The Dallas Cowboys kicked way too many field goals once they moved inside the 20 last season. Jason Garrett's offense scored a touchdown only 25 times in 49 red zone possessions

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That's not close to being good enough.

Here's some perspective: New England scored touchdowns on 49 of 70 red zone possessions for a league-leading 70 percent conversion rate. And get this, the pass-happy Patriots scored a league-high 25 rushing touchdowns inside the red zone.

Garrett's simple remedy for improving the Cowboys' red zone efficiency, which tied for 22nd last season: Running the ball better.

Dallas scored only eight rushing touchdowns in the red zone, one of 13 teams that failed to hit double digits. Playoff teams averaged 14 rushing touchdowns in the red zone.

Run the ball better and you take pressure off Tony Romo.

"We have to run the ball better. That's what we have to do," Garrett said. "We simply have to run it better and we'll run it more. You get favorable coverage mismatches, when you run it well. When we evaluated our team last year, the biggest issue in the red zone was minus plays and penalties. We were digging out of a hole way too much.

"When you're on your heels because you can't run it, or you have minus plays as the result of penalties, you're playing into their hands because there's not a lot of space to throw it down there."
Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defensive scheme does one thing better than just about any other scheme: prevent the big play.

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The Cowboys could certainly use some help.

Last year, the Dallas Cowboys allowed 67 plays of 20 yards or more, tied for 22nd in the NFL. The league average was 60, and Pittsburgh allowed a league-low 37.

The scheme should help.

In the Tampa 2 scheme, at least one safety typically plays 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. His only job, so to speak, is to make sure nothing gets behind him. In passing situations, both safeties will often be employed deep.

The scheme also uses quite a bit of zone coverage, which means the defensive backs and linebackers keep the action in front of them. It's hard to get beat deep, when the safety is deeper than the deepest receiver.

That said, the Cowboys also gave up 15 runs of 20 yards, the sixth-highest total in the league.

The scheme makes them vulnerable because the safeties are so far off the ball. They will often compensate by having one of the safeties near the line of scrimmage to help against the run.

But the key is stopping the big plays and the easy touchdowns that often accompany long gains.
Dwayne Harris returned three punts in the first seven games of last season. Then coach Jason Garrett couldn't take Dez Bryant's reckless approach to punt returns any more after a key fumble against the New York Giants.

So he took the job from Bryant and gave it to Harris. It's one of the best moves Garrett made all season.

Harris tied for the league lead with three other players with seven punt returns of 20 yards or more. Not bad for a player who spent almost two months on the streets as a rookie in 2011 after the Cowboys released him.

What that disappointment did was force Harris to see the fragility of an NFL career. You would think a sixth-round pick would understand that, but clearly he didn't.

So he lost about 10 pounds -- Jason Garrett wants him under 200 pounds -- and it gave him just enough quickness to make a significant difference. Harris isn't fast, so he must be quick.

Most impressive is that Harris did his best work when it mattered most. Four of his returns of 20 yards or more occurred in the fourth quarter and one happened in overtime.

He made big plays at winning time. The Cowboys can use more of that this season.
The Cowboys are 6-0 when running back DeMarco Murray gains 100 yards. And they're 8-0 when he has 20 carries or more in a game.

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No more evidence is needed to understand why the Cowboys must have a good running game. If -- and this is a big one -- Murray can stay healthy, then he'll give Dallas the running game it needs. Murray has missed nine of 32 games in his first two seasons.

The Cowboys need him because he makes the offense considerably better. When he's running well, Murray forces teams to play with an extra defender near the line of scrimmage, which opens the passing game and takes pressure off Tony Romo.

Now, it's not as simple as giving Murray the ball the first 20 plays. It's about being persistent with the running game and giving it a chance to work -- even if it starts slowly.

If Murray starts 14 games this season, the Cowboys will have the running game they need and they'll make the playoffs.
Dez Bryant finished sixth in the NFL in receiving yards last season. Imagine where he would've finished if the Dallas Cowboys hadn't ignored him in the first quarter.

Bryant caught just nine passes for 104 yards in the first quarter last season. For a guy who finished with 93 receptions for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns, that's a joke.

Detroit's Calvin Johnson caught 24 first quarter passes, and Houston's Andre Johnson caught 31. Chicago's Brandon Marshall caught 21 first-quarter passes and Denver's Demaryius Thomas had 24. Even Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson had 15 catches in the first quarter.

Those are the only receivers with more yards than Bryant last season.

See the trend? All but Jackson were offensive focal points in the first quarter. Bryant is the Cowboys' most dynamic offensive player, so the Cowboys need to make it a priority to get him the ball.

And they need to get it to him in the first quarter, if for no other reason than he will create opportunities for others with the coverage he draws.

Coach Jason Garrett loves to spread the ball around and take what the defense gives him. Let's hope Bill Callahan is more persistent in getting his best player the ball.
Tony Romo tied for the league lead with 19 interceptions last season. He threw 14 of them in four games.

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Wow.

Romo threw five against the Chicago Bears, four against the New York Giants, two on Thanksgiving Day against the Washington Redskins and three in the season finale against the Redskins.

The Cowboys went 0-4 in those games, and they're 4-15 overall in games that Romo has thrown multiple picks.

Every quarterback throws interceptions; the key for Romo is limiting his mistakes. Turnovers are the most important stat in the game because teams that win the turnover battle win the vast majority of the games.

It will help if the Cowboys run the ball better and start games faster so they're not playing from behind so much. But it's up to Romo to protect the ball since he has it in his hands most of the time.

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