Cowboys: Scheme is not the issue

IRVING, Texas -- Asked about the Dallas Cowboys' struggles against 3-4 defenses, quarterback Tony Romo responded with a question of his own.

"Have we ever played well against a 3-4 defense?" Romo said.

Well, Tony, you guys weren't bad against the Kansas City Chiefs in the October overtime win.

"All right, then," Romo responded with a smirk. "It's possible."

Not unless the offensive line performs much better than it did in losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers over the last 16 games. The San Diego Chargers, who still run Wade Phillips' scheme, represent the Cowboys' next 3-4 challenge.

We'll omit the Cowboys' 498-yard, 26-point performance against the Chiefs from the study for a simple reason: Kansas City's defense is awful, ranking 31st in total defense and 30th in scoring defense. Yet the Cowboys' issues with the 3-4 were apparent even at Arrowhead Stadium for two quarters, with the Cowboys managing only a field goal in the first half.

Dallas' stats against the other 3-4 defenses they've faced recently are startling. In those four losses, they averaged only 302.3 yards and 13.5 points. Compare that to their average production this season: 394.8 yards and 23.3 points.

The Cowboys committed three turnovers per game against the good 3-4 defenses, giving the ball away twice as often as they have through the course of this season. The Broncos and Packers each sacked Romo five times.

The Cowboys' offense faces a 3-4 every day during offseason workouts and training camp. While each team has different wrinkles in its blitz packages, the Cowboys shouldn't be confused by a scheme they see so often.

"It just comes down to us up front identifying who we have to block," left guard Kyle Kosier said. "They're going to give us some different fronts. We just have to communicate and block it up."

Granted, these are great defenses we're discussing. The Steelers and Ravens, who beat the Cowboys last December, finished the 2008 season ranked as the NFL's top two defenses. The Packers and Broncos are ranked first and third, respectively, this season.

It's reasonable to believe that the level of competition has more to do with Dallas' difficulty against the 3-4 than X's and O's.

"They've just outplayed us," tight end Jason Witten said. "I don't think it's something you look at scheme-wise and say that they're attacking us."

The Chargers are a solid defense, not an elite unit. They rank 12th in the league in total defense (322.3 yards per game) and 15th in scoring defense (20.2 points per game). This will be a good test to determine whether the Cowboys have scheme issues against a 3-4 or have just struggled against great defenses.

"I don't categorize any of those games by the defenses they ran," center Andre Gurode said. "I just go and look at how we played in those games. We just have to play well against the Chargers."

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.