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Cowboys vs. Titans preview

9/14/2014

The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a bad loss to San Francisco and head for Nashville, where the Tennessee Titans await after a surprisingly strong opening win in Kansas City.

ESPN.com’s Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss the Week 2 clash.

Kuharsky: It was an ugly start for the Cowboys in their loss to the 49ers. Is this version of the team the sort that will bounce back and play better in its second chance or continue to unravel?

Archer: There are so many new faces with this team that I really don't know yet. There are 19 guys on the team that weren't with the team in Week 1 last year. The defense has a lot of holes, despite what was a better-than-expected showing in the opener against the Niners. The key, obviously, is Tony Romo bouncing back. That was one of his worst games. It wasn't just the interceptions. Quarterbacks are going to have those. He just didn't see the field well. It was odd to see him so out of sync. He's done a decent job of bouncing back from these types of games. In the 10 contests after games with three or more picks, he has 15 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Rarely does he have two bad games in a row.

Beating a 2013 playoff team in Kansas City is an impressive feat and that has to help a new coach get his message across. How has Ken Whisenhunt attempted to changes things with the Titans?

Kuharsky: He’s a strong presence who gives a team confidence with a résumé that includes taking long-hapless Arizona to a Super Bowl. He’s very direct and the players have responded well to his approach. Everyone coming off a mediocre year and a coaching staff change craves that clean slate and clear direction, and he’s offered both. At the core of the Whisenhunt Titans are new systems. He’s the playcaller on offense and he has a strong plan for how to move the ball with a committee of running backs and a stable of quality pass-catchers. He’s unpredictable and he builds things during a game where he sets up something now for later. On defense, the Titans are now a 3-4 that should also bring a far greater degree of unpredictability. The Titans are still not certain who will be the main playmakers on defense.

Who are the playmakers on Dallas' defense, and what degree of playmaking can the Cowboys expect? I look at the depth chart and no one jumps out. I know some guys are developing. But I see George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey and Justin Durant (who will miss the next three to four weeks) and wonder if they are putting the Jaguars old defense back together?

Archer: The Cowboys are doing a lot of hoping with their defense. I never put the Jacksonville connection together, but that sure doesn't sound too good. And those three guys are some of the better defenders, especially with Sean Lee out for the year. In the past this defense was built around DeMarcus Ware and everybody else. They had some solid players with Ware who made Pro Bowls but nobody close to his level. Now they're hoping guys like Selvie, Mincey, Durant, Bruce Carter, Henry Melton, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can have career years. Melton needs to be a playmaker. He was a Pro Bowler under Rod Marinelli in Chicago and is working his way back into shape after missing most of last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Carr ($50 million) and Claiborne (sixth pick of the 2012 draft) have to live up to expectations. They have yet to do that and were substandard in the opener. So to wrap it all up, they are taking the no-name defense to the extreme and hoping the offense can carry the day and make life easier for the defense.

This is a huge year for Jake Locker. Cowboys fans haven't seen much of him. Is he anything more than just a caretaker? Can he carry an offense?

Kuharsky: For starters, he’s got the personality you want in a quarterback. He works hard. He’s dying to be successful. He craves coaching. He’s a natural leader. His teammates really like and respect him. Of course none of that matters if he cannot play. On the field, he brings great speed, but using it comes with some fear of injury, because he’s repeatedly gotten hurt. He’s not typically going to read the whole field, and he's not always on target. But he now understands and adjusts the protections and feels a real ownership of the offense and he can make some very good throws. He’s behind a line that should be good, handing off to several quality running backs and throwing to some very good players, headlined by receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Justin Hunter.

I think if he plays well, he can carry an offense at times. But his job is to get the ball into the hands of playmakers and to minimize mistakes. I think it needs to be an offensive football team and that Whisenhunt has a handle on how best to use him. He has panicked under pressure in the past, but handled it well in Kansas City. That’s a development to monitor.

This season will tell the Titans if he’s their guy going forward.

What’s your feel of Scott Linehan as a playcaller?

Archer: I think Linehan will be an asset for this offense. I never agreed with last year's decision to make Bill Callahan the playcaller. He had never worked with Jason Garrett's passing game before and had West Coast ties. It was a poor fit all around. Linehan's history with Garrett -- they were on Nick Saban's staff together in Miami -- makes this move more sensible. They think alike. And more importantly, Linehan is learning how Romo thinks. The offense has not been this team's problem when you look at the numbers. They have scored enough points, put up enough yards, but they haven't gotten it done together at the end of seasons. Hence the 8-8 records. Linehan's work in Detroit with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson leads me to believe that Romo and Dez Bryant will produce. But Linehan will have a better running game and better tight end (Jason Witten) than he ever had in Detroit. So if the Cowboys can stay away from turnovers, they should be explosive.

The Cowboys saw a 3-4 defense last week in San Francisco, but I view the Titans' defense as a different 3-4 with Ray Horton. Is he stealing from Dick LeBeau's playbook in Pittsburgh?

Kuharsky: Horton regularly pays homage to LeBeau, the coach he learned under while a Steelers assistant. But this isn't a straight version of the Pittsburgh 3-4. There is some two-gapping. But the defensive linemen are not asked to do it regularly, and it would be a mistake to have a stud lineman like Jurrell Casey trying to take up blockers when he’s an excellent playmaker. Casey’s now an end in the base and inside in the nickel. The Titans have a deep pool of defensive linemen who are pretty good. But the linebackers are questionable. Converted 4-3 end Derrick Morgan was quite good in his first real game as an outside linebacker. Kamerion Wimbley and Shaun Phillips need to provide an edge-rushing threat. And the inside guys, Wesley Woodyard and now Zaviar Gooden, are built more on speed than on being big, thumping hitters.

There is a lot for us to see and learn, and Horton admitted it’ll be at least four games before things start to fully click for everyone in a different scheme.