Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Five things to watch: Cowboys-Dolphins
By Dan Graziano
The Dallas Cowboys will host the Miami Dolphins in their annual Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday afternoon. Each team comes in having won three games in a row. The Cowboys edged the division-rival Redskins in overtime on Sunday to claim a share of first place in the NFC East. And the Dolphins have really turned it on after their 0-7 start, outscoring their last three opponents by a combined score of 86-20. Here's a look at some of the things to watch for as the Cowboys try to make it four in a row against one of the hottest teams in the league:
Air it out: The Dolphins' defense is allowing 251.1 passing yards per game this year, which is the eighth-highest average in the league. Now, during their current three-game winning streak, they're only allowing 206 passing yards per game. Their defense is playing better, especially up front. But they can still be exploited in the secondary, and none of the teams they've beaten -- Kansas City, Washington or Buffalo -- came equipped with the kind of downfield weapons the Cowboys and Tony Romo have at their disposal. While the Cowboys have shown, since rookie DeMarco Murray took over as the starting running back, a commitment to the run, I'd look for them to take some deep shots against a weak part of this Miami defense and see if they can build an early lead.
During the Dolphins' three-game winning streak, Matt Moore has thrown six touchdown passes and just one interception.
Make Matt Moore uncomfortable: The Dolphins' quarterback has played very well in recent weeks, throwing six touchdown passes and one interception during the win streak. Miami has managed to get big production out of running back Reggie Bush to take some pressure off of Moore, and he's worked tight end Anthony Fasano into the receiving mix to complement the big, physical downfield presence of wide receiver Brandon Marshall. But Moore isn't likely to find the going so smooth if the Cowboys can get into the backfield and disrupt his timing. DeMarcus Ware should be moved around some in this game so he gets to attack the Marc Colombo side of the Dolphins' offensive line as well as the Jake Long side. It's on the Colombo side, Cowboys fans will not be surprised to learn, that they're most vulnerable.
The Fiammetta factor: With fullback Tony Fiammetta sidelined due to illness last week, Murray and the run game weren't as effective as they had been in the previous four games. That's not to say Murray wasn't good. His prior four games were a lot to live up to. But with Fiammetta out, there was a clear difference in Murray's effectiveness when running between the tackles. It looks as though Fiammetta will sit out again, so watch the Dolphins stack up eight-man fronts to try and take away Murray or at least dare him to try and run inside.
Is Sean Lee all the way back?: The Cowboys were the best defense in the league against the run in the early part of this season. Then, starting with the injury to middle linebacker Lee in the loss to the Eagles, they struggled against the run for a few weeks. Was their improvement in this department Sunday because the Redskins' run game is so poor, or because Lee is getting more comfortable playing in spite of his injured wrist? The Dolphins, with Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas leading their run game, will offer a more reliable test.
Home for the holiday: Romo is 4-0 in his career on Thanksgiving Day. He missed last year's game due to injury, but he and the Cowboys are thought to have an advantage here because they play a Thanksgiving game every year and are experienced in how to handle the short week. They're also at home, and playing with extreme confidence. While they can't take the suddenly red-hot Dolphins lightly, they have what they need to establish themselves as the better team early and control the game.