NFL Preview - Tennessee (2-2) at Dallas (1-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - An 0-2 start by the Dallas Cowboys left a few pigskin prognosticators rushing to switch their predicted NFC Super Bowl representative.
Dallas was able to pick up its first victory before a well-time bye that allowed the club to get healthy, though, and the team goes for a second straight win this Sunday at Cowboys Stadium against a hard-hitting Tennessee Titans team that is looking to extend a 10-game winning streak over the NFC.
Predicted by many to win the NFC East and represent the conference in the Super Bowl, the Cowboys dropped their first two games of the season to Washington and Chicago before earning a 27-13 triumph at Houston in Week 3.
Largely considered a disappointment since being acquired from Detroit in 2008, wide receiver Roy Williams hauled in a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Tony Romo, helping Dallas avoid its first 0-3 start since 2001.
"It was a big win for this football team," Williams said. "Everyone counted us out all week and changed their Super Bowl predictions. We took that in and went out there and played ball."
While Dallas may have lost a little bit of its momentum due to the weekend off, it was able to get all 61 of its players on the field for practice on Wednesday. Tight end Jason Witten (knee), left guard Kyle Kosier (knee) and Dez Bryant (hip/ribs) were among those who missed parts of practice last week before returning Wednesday.
The Cowboys will need all of their bodies as they take on a Titans team that has alternated wins and losses over its first four weeks and has been penalized 37 times for 344 yards this year. Nine of those have been personal foul calls.
Tennessee was flagged 10 times for 111 yards in a 26-20 loss to the Denver Broncos this past Sunday. Six sacks by the defense, as well as a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Marc Mariani, helped the Titans carry a four-point edge into the final quarter, but Denver scored the go-ahead score with 1:33 left in regulation. That one-yard touchdown pass by Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton to running back Correll Buckhalter was set up after a pass interference call on safety Chris Hope that put the ball at the one-yard line.
While the Titans' aggressive play helped keep them in the game, it also left the Broncos throwing the word "cheap" around after the game. Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, though, doesn't think his team is playing dirty.
"We play aggressive, we don't play cheap," Fisher said on Monday. "If there are things after the whistle or during the play, players are fined for them. We're not a cheap football team, I don't know what [Orton] is referring to -- we did have six sacks and hit the quarterback numerous other times, they did have some difficulty in protection and blocking our defensive line. Maybe he's referring to that."
Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips also doesn't agree with the Broncos' assessment of the Titans.
"I don't see them as cheap at all," the coach said on Wednesday. "I think they play hard. I disagree with whatever Denver said from watching the film. I coached with Jeff Fisher and I know how he coaches and what kind of guy he is. I know what he is telling his players. I see a really hard-working team that gets after you on defense, but that is what defense is all about. I don't see any of that [cheap stuff]."
The Titans are aiming to avoid their first loss to a NFC opponent since Oct. 14, 2007 versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Cowboys lead the all-time series with the Titans, 7-5, including a 45-14 road rout when the teams last met, in 2006. That game is best remembered for an ugly incident late in the game, when then-Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stomped on the helmet-less head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode. Haynesworth served a five-game suspension for the incident. Tennessee's most recent win in the series was a 31-0 home triumph in 2000, and their most recent victory at Dallas came in 1997.
Fisher is 2-2 in his career against the Cowboys. Phillips is 1-1 in his career against both the Titans and Fisher, with both games dating to his tenure at the helm of the Buffalo Bills (1998-2000). One of those contests was the fabled "Music City Miracle" game in 1999, in which Fisher's Titans won an AFC Wild Card game on the strength of a last-second return.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Titans' 27th ranked offense (285.5 yards per game) struggled versus the Broncos a week ago, especially in the second half. Tennessee finished the game with just 288 yards, with a mere 46 of those coming after halftime. A pair of field goals by kicker Rob Bironas and a special teams touchdown kept the Titans in the game, but the club was also doomed by a pair of fumbles. Running back Chris Johnson (354 rushing yards, 4 TD) lost one of those miscues and ended with just 53 yards on 19 carries. He has been held under 100 yards in two of his four games this year, but is still sixth in the league in rushing. Quarterback Vince Young (511 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT), who played his college ball at the University of Texas, passed for just 173 yards on 17-of-28 throwing, but did find wide receiver Kenny Britt (10 receptions, 2 TD) in the end zone for a second straight week. Fellow wide receiver Nate Washington (14 receptions 2 TD) led the team with four catches for 42 yards to pace a passing offense that is averaging just 152.3 yards per game. Young will try to move the ball better through the air to open up space for Johnson.
There is little doubt that Dallas' top priority on defense will be shutting down Johnson, and the club has a capable unit. The Cowboys are ranked seventh in total defense (299.3 ypg) and eighth versus the run (83.7 ypg), though the NFL's current leading rusher -- Houston's Arian Foster -- totaled 106 yards on the ground two weekends ago. The Cowboys were also able to get a large amount of pressure on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in the win, with linebacker DeMarcus Ware (15 tackles, 4 sacks) matching a career-high with three sacks. Linebacker Keith Brooking (21 tackles, 1 sack) also got to the quarterback, while cornerback Mike Jenkins (6 tackles) and rookie safety Danny McCray grabbed Dallas' first two interceptions of the season. The Cowboys would love to get to Young with the same efficiency, as their four-sack performance against Houston upped their season total to just six. Brooking paced the Cowboys with nine tackles in Week 3, while cornerback Terence Newman (14 tackles), safety Gerald Sensabaugh (13 tackles) and linebacker Bradie James (21 tackles) all finished with seven each.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
While Dallas' offense was limited to just seven points in Week 1, the club has scored 47 over its last two games. The Cowboys own the fifth-ranked offense in the league (391.7 ypg) and put up a season-high 27 points on Houston thanks to big games out of Williams (12 receptions, 2 TD) and Romo (940 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT). A more consistent Williams will definitely take the pressure of fellow wideout Miles Austin (22 receptions, 1 TD) and Witten (15 receptions) and give Romo another dependable target. A running game would also help. Dallas is averaging just 80 yards per game on the ground and got just 55 yards on 17 carries from Marion Barber (125 rushing yards, 1 TD) against Houston, though he did find the end zone. Romo completed 23 of his 30 pass attempts for 284 yards in that game, while Witten made a game-high seven catches for 56 yards. Bryant (14 receptions) added four receptions for 50 yards and Austin was limited to just two catches for 20 yards.
The Cowboys have allowed a NFL-low one sack all season, but they now face a Titans team that is tied for the league lead with 16 sacks and is giving up just 92.0 yards per game on the ground. Four different Tennessee players were credited with a sack versus the Broncos, with end Dave Ball (11 tackles, 5 sacks) posting 2 1/2 sacks to give him a quarterback takedown in three straight games. Fellow end Jason Babin (19 tackles, 4 sacks) had 1 1/2 sacks, while cornerback Cortland Finnegan (24 tackles, 1 sack) and tackle Tony Brown (12 tackles, 2 sacks) had one each. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch (38 tackles) led the club with 12 tackles and corner Alterraun Verner (21 tackles), playing in place of the injured Jason McCourty (15 tackles, 1 INT), had 11 stops. Safety Michael Griffin (35 tackles, 1 INT), who like Young also played at the University of Texas, had an interception. The Titans' eighth-ranked defense (302.8 YPG) could again be without McCourty due to a forearm injury, while rookie end Derrick Morgan was placed on injured reserve Tuesday due to a torn ACL suffered versus the Broncos.
Though he has struggled in two of his four games this year, Johnson is always a threat to break a big one, and even a tough matchup this weekend shouldn't keep him out of starting lineups. There aren't many other fantasy options on offense for the Titans given their struggles in the passing game. Though the Titans defense has done well against the run while keeping teams out of the end zone, it's struggles in the passing game make the unit a risky start. Bironas has missed just one of his seven field goals this year and showed range with a 55-yarder against the Broncos.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, contain a host of offensive fantasy options, including Romo, Witten and Austin. Williams has been too inconsistent during his Dallas tenure, but he is worth keeping an eye on given his big game two weekends ago. Barber and backfield mate Felix Jones have done virtually nothing on the ground, but Barber is the better option of the two because he will get the short goal-line carries. The Cowboys defense should put up good numbers against the Titans' run-heavy offense.
There was some cause for concern after Dallas' 0-2 start, but confidence should be flowing back its way after its decisive Week 3 victory. While the Titans have been grinding just to get to 2-2, the Cowboys come in fresh, healthy and most likely with a solid game plan to exploit Tennessee's secondary. Recent complaints about the Titans' defense may have officials keeping a closer eye on the unit this weekend, and that certainly will work in favor of Dallas' playmakers. Expect a big game out of Romo and company as the Cowboys get back to .500.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 24, Titans 17
10/07 17:22:36 ET