Dallas Cowboys  

 

Strong defense, easy schedule will lead Cowboys to division title

Tim Heitman/US Presswire
Jay Ratliff and the Cowboys are averaging 3.2 sacks per game, which ranks third in the NFL.


The NFC East race is wide open. No one has emerged as the true leader, and each has had several issues during the first six weeks of the season. The 4-2 Giants have been inconsistent on both sides of the ball, the 3-2 Redskins are changing quarterbacks and the struggles of the 2-4 Eagles have been well documented.

Then there's the 2-3 Cowboys. Dallas has been in every game and made terrible mistakes down the stretch in all three of their losses. Still, it's my opinion that the Cowboys will win the NFC East. Here are three reasons why:

Cowboys have the best defense in the division

Rob Ryan has quickly crafted an elite defense in Dallas that is capable of carrying the team to the postseason.

Led by Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Sean Lee, the Cowboys rank fifth in total defense and are allowing a league-low 69.6 rushing yards a game. The run defense has been spearheaded by a frontline that is owning the line of scrimmage and allows a group of ultra-aggressive linebackers to flow freely to the ball. As a result, the Cowboys are holding opponents to 3.3 yards per carry. More importantly, that number drops to 3.19 yards per attempt on first down, which allows Ryan to unleash his exotic pressure in long-yardage situations.

The blitz-heavy defense has also been effective against the pass. The unit has 16 sacks -- led by Ware's seven -- and forces opposing quarterbacks into errant throws. Although the Cowboys have failed to generate many takeaways with the blitz, the pressure makes opponents settle for quick throws and the unit has done an exceptional job rallying to the ball. Consequently, Dallas has surrendered only 15 plays of 20-plus yards, third-fewest in the league, and not given up easy scores.

This was on display against the Patriots. Dallas held the league's most explosive offense to 20 points. While the effort didn't result in a win, it showed the potential of the defense.

Jason Garrett will eventually solve the red-zone woes

Dallas has a star-studded offense, but the unit has struggled in one critical area: The red zone.

The Cowboys are near the bottom of the league in red-zone efficiency with only 33.3 percent of those drives resulting in touchdowns. Their ineptitude inside the 20 has been critical in each of their losses. Turnovers, penalties and poor execution have minimized scoring opportunities. Considering the Cowboys have played in 11 straight games decided by four points or fewer, the miscues become even more important.

Part of Garrett's problems generating points has been due to the absence of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Both receivers have missed time while nursing injuries, and that has prevented Garrett from getting the ball to his best playmakers at critical points of a game.

However, Austin and Bryant are almost fully healthy and that will encourage Garrett to take more chances. Rather than using misdirection or deception to finish off scoring chances, the Cowboys can throw back-shoulder fades or combination routes to attack the end zone.

By putting their best players in favorable matchups, the red-zone production will certainly improve and result in more wins.

The schedule works in their favor

The Cowboys had a tough opening slate, but the schedule-makers did them a huge favor with several winnable games in the middle of the season. Dallas' next seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .324, with only the Bills and Redskins currently above .500.

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The Cowboys get three home dates -- St. Louis (10/23), Seattle (10/30) and Buffalo (11/13) -- over the next four weeks, which gives them a chance to gain significant ground on their divisional rivals.

While road games against the Eagles and Redskins certainly will be tough, the Cowboys can control their own destiny down the stretch.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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