Conventional wisdom would say the Baltimore Ravens are one of the last opponents any team would want to experiment on. They pressure opposing quarterbacks at an astounding rate, racking up 11 sacks, 26 pressures, and 39 hurries in only 5 games.
All this adds up to their defense either touching or getting dangerously near the opposing quarterback an average of 15 times per game. Certainly unwelcome news for a Dallas offense allowing Tony Romo to be touched or harassed 60 times in 4 games, or an average of 15 times per game. Welcome back Phil Costa, jumping straight into the fire is the understatement of the week.
So what makes this game an ideal spot for new offensive wrinkles? When looking at the bigger picture the implications of this game are the lowest of all upcoming games until Dallas faces Cleveland in Week 11. By no means are the Cowboys in any position to take another loss from a moral standpoint. However, if there is a reasonably acceptable loss the next several weeks, this is it.
WITHIN THE NFC EAST
A loss would set Dallas a 1/2 game to 1.5 games back from Philadelphia and New York in the overall standings (depending on their own Sunday outcomes). However, Baltimore has zero bearing on the Cowboy’s division record and conference record.
Philadelphia has their hands full with a so-far underachieving Detroit team facing a must-win situation with a 1-3 record. Detroit has plenty of talent and will make a playoff push, this will be their self-designated turn-around game. The Giants certainly have a daunting task in front of them, going on the road to challenge the powerhouse San Francisco team freshly off two wins by a combined dominating score of 79-3.
The strangest outcome of all this week…if Dallas loses along with both Philadelphia and New York…Dallas would move in front of both those teams in NFC conference record. The Cowboys’ NFC record would stay the same at 2-2, while the Eagles would drop to 1-2 and the Giants down to 2-3.
While the Ravens game has fewer long-term implications than most others, the same cannot be said for the Cowboys’ following 4 games, all conference contests with NFC implications. 2 of those 4 are both conference and divisional match-ups against the leading NFC East teams. A loss in any of these next 4 games will do far more long-term damage than this Ravens game.
AGGRESSIVE / UNPREDICTABLE OFFENSE
In no way am I suggesting the Cowboys mail this one in and absorb a loss just because it is somewhat tolerable in the big picture. What I am saying is this game is a great spot to try new wrinkles and become highly aggressive.
The Ravens pass rush is intense. How about Dallas work in a fair amount of no-huddle offense to slow it down? Get the big defensive linemen winded and unable to come full-steam as easy as with rest between plays. Keep the tempo fast so the defense has trouble making any schematic substitutions.
Work Jason Phillips back in some at fullback, allowing the wrinkle of flexing both DeMarco Murray and Phillips out of the backfield to receiver spots in a hurry-up offense mode. Dallas could line-up in power run formations to get the bigger Ravens personnel on the field. Then use the same offensive players to flex them out into pass coverage through no-huddle offense.
And I know this part is wishful thinking, but get the right players into the game that Dallas feels can take them the furthest or provide the best chance to win critical games in the future. Throw Matt Johnson into the fire at safety and get his feet wet aside from just a few looks now and then.
The fact that Phil Costa and Jay Ratliff are back also gives Dallas a great chance to determine where they are once the normal starters hit the field at very critical spots. Hopefully, Anthony Spencer makes it back and the defense has a chance to see if they can become more dominant with 10 of 11 starters facing off against the balanced Ravens offense.
Both Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan have a unique opportunity against a very solid team to build confidence in their guys. If Dallas can come out aggressive, unpredictable, and willing to let it hang out versus a Super Bowl contender, this game could do wonders for the rest of the schedule. The chance to re-energize the team and the fans is within reach.
This game reminds me a great deal of the New England game in 2011. It’s almost the exact situation. The Cowboys were 2-2 and coming off their bye week. They were heading on the road to play the 4-1 Patriots and most expected Dallas to roll over. Against all odds, the Cowboys played lights out, leading the Pats in both yards and time of possession. They also held a 3-point lead until the final 22 seconds of the game when New England converted the winning touchdown.
In that game, both Dallas and their opponent had identical records as this year…2-2 versus 4-1. In both years Dallas was exiting their bye week. And the 2011 Patriots were viewed as no less daunting of an opponent than the 2012 Ravens.
The Cowboys played an inspired, confidence boosting game that day against the eventual Super Bowl runner-ups. The last seconds loss propelled Dallas to win 5 of their next 6 games.
While no loss is a great thing, sometimes the way you play against a great team in a loss can re-energize a football program. Following the Patriots loss in 2011, Dallas held a shameful 2-3 record. By the end of Week 12 they had improved drastically to 7-4 and a major player in the NFC playoff race. The confidence gained from that tough Week 6 loss at Foxboro was no doubt a huge springboard to the turn-around.
The point is now is not the time for conservative play. It’s time to take risks and take them big. Of the two teams that played aggressive offense and went after the Ravens, Philadelphia won by a point and New England lost by a point. A conservative game-plan will spell doom for this Cowboys offense and team on Sunday. Let’s hope Jason Garrett takes the training wheels off and goes for the Ravens’ throat in search of an upset win and building block to future wins.