After resuscitating their season last Sunday with a victory over Philadelphia, the Cowboys return home to face Cleveland. The Browns are on their way to posting another poor record. But they have been competitive, losing by single-digit margins in games against Baltimore and Indianapolis. This game isn’t appointment viewing and a Cowboys’ victory won’t cause the masses to change their opinion about where this team stands. But if Cowboys lose the damage will be significant. Here is a look at how both teams match up:
When the Cowboys run
Last Sunday, in the Cowboys’ 38-23 victory over Philadelphia, Dallas enjoyed its best rushing performance since DeMarco Murray suffered a sprained left foot Oct. 14. Against the Eagles, Dallas gained 101 yards on the ground. Despite the good effort, evidence shows Dallas has missed Murray, who is listed as doubtful. In the four games Murray has been sidelined, the Cowboys have averaged only 2.97 yards per carry. That number may increase Sunday against a Browns defense yielding 132.2 rushing yards per game – the sixth-highest average in the NFL.
When the Cowboys pass
This month, Tony Romo has yet to throw an interception. In two games, he has avoided committing any turnovers while posting a quarterback rating of 114.8. Romo’s performance, while unspectacular, has been steady and efficient. If he is given sufficient protection against a Browns defense that has recorded 20 sacks, he should continue his streak of success. Cleveland is allowing 247.9 passing yards per game – the 11th-highest average in the NFL. The Browns have also intercepted 10 passes – tied for sixth-most in the league this season.
When the Browns run
When Cleveland drafted Alabama’s Trent Richardson with the third overall pick last April, they appeared to be picking up a running back that could be a driving force for the Browns’ offense for the years to come. But the Browns are averaging only 89.2 yards per game on the ground and Richardson has been tackled in the backfield on 19 carries this season. The Cowboys haven’t always fared well against physical rushers like Richardson (See Lynch, Marshawn), but they are limiting teams to 105.2 yards per game – the 13th-lowest average in the NFL.
When the Browns pass
Only two NFL starting quarterbacks – Arizona’s John Skelton and Kansas City’s Matt Cassel — have posted a lower quarterback rating than Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden. The 29-year-old rookie has struggled, throwing nine touchdown passes and 12 interceptions while completing only 55.1 percent of his throws. Of course, Weeden’s lack of success isn’t just the result of inexperience. The offense he runs lacks firepower. The Browns’ top receivers — Greg Little and Josh Gordon – are talented but have played a combined total of 34 NFL games. The Cowboys, who have the eighth-ranked pass defense, should be able to corral them.
The Cowboys’ special teams have experienced marked improvement in recent weeks. Last Sunday, Dwayne Harris’ 78-yard punt return for a touchdown was the difference in Dallas’ victory over Philadelphia. Harris has now scored as many return touchdowns as Cleveland’s more accomplished specialist Josh Cribbs has produced in the last three seasons. And Cribbs has already turned the ball over twice this season. While Cleveland’s Phil Dawson is the only NFL kicker who has made all of his field goal attempts this season, making all 17 tries, his performance has only been marginally better than the Cowboys’ Dan Bailey, who has converted 88.9 percent of his 18 attempts.
A noon kickoff and the prospect of facing a lousy opponent may keep the Cowboys’ offense a tad punchy before the start of this game. But the defense should be wide awake. After all, coordinator Rob Ryan gets a chance to exact some revenge against his previous employer. Ryan oversaw the Browns’ defense during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but his job status was placed in jeopardy when Cleveland fired Eric Mangini and replaced him with current coach Pat Shurmur. Before a move could be made, Ryan left to join the Cowboys. And on Sunday he will face his old team for the first time since leaving.
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