Bye offers shot to regroup, make fixes
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' overtime victory Sunday wasn't perfect, but they feel good about themselves heading into the bye week with a 3-2 record.
The Cowboys have fared well coming off a bye week, having won their past four such games and going 6-3 this decade.
With 13 days off before the next game, we look at 10 things the Cowboys need to focus and work on before facing Atlanta.
1. Consistent offense: The Cowboys have the NFL's best offense, averaging 420 yards per game, yet it doesn't feel that way. In their three victories, the Cowboys compiled 1,409 total yards. But in a two-week span, Tony Romo didn't throw a touchdown pass and the running game -- after totaling 400 yards in consecutive games -- had only 74 yards in a loss at Denver. But the Cowboys rebounded with 150 rushing yards against Kansas City -- 92 from Tashard Choice. The Cowboys still haven't established an identity on offense. That has to change.
2. Anthony Spencer has to have a bigger impact. OK. DeMarcus Ware picked up two sacks. Keith Brooking has one. Bradie James has one. So what has happened to Spencer? The Cowboys have said Spencer is good against the run, but he's expected to take some pressure off Ware with the pass rush. He hasn't done that. He's been close, getting three quarterback hits and picking up two tackles for loss against the Chiefs. Teams continue to double-team Ware, putting Spencer in one-on-one situations. He's not beating those blocks on a consistent basis.
3. Key playmakers need to get healthy. With the time off, receiver Roy Williams (ribs), safety Gerald Sensabaugh (thumb) and backup running back Felix Jones (knee) can heal. Dallas needs Jones' big-play potential -- he averages 10.1 yards per carry. Williams has gotten off to a slow start with 11 catches through four games. And with Miles Austin having a breakout game Sunday, it's time for Williams to step up. The Cowboys miss Sensabaugh's ability to make plays in the secondary. Pat Watkins has been a nice fill-in, but the coaches are more comfortable with Sensabaugh. Marion Barber (thigh) also gets to rest this week.
4. Tight end Jason Witten has to play better. Witten has been a safety valve for Tony Romo, but he hasn't made a big impact. We saw a little in the Chiefs game, with Witten catching five passes for 47 yards, but he needs to make more first-down receptions to keep the offense going. Backup tight end Martellus Bennett (four catches) also has to get more involved in the offense, especially when the team goes to twin-TE sets.
5. Defense has to finish off teams. The defense couldn't make a final stand in a Week 2 loss to the Giants, and it couldn't finish the job against the Chiefs and Broncos -- allowing winning and tying drives late in the fourth quarter. The defense has to seal games. Coach Wade Phillips said the team will work on fixing the two-minute defense during the bye week.
6. Game management must improve. In the late stages of the game, the Cowboys didn't call a timeout as the Giants drove the length of the field. Phillips thought his defense would make a stand, but it didn't. Because of that, his offense had only a few seconds to play. Against K.C., the Cowboys called two timeouts in the first quarter -- one when a play was called in late, Phillips said, after the coaching staff didn't know the team had converted a first down.
7. Tony Romo and Roy Williams must connect. Williams, who didn't play Sunday with bruised ribs, hasn't caught a touchdown pass the past three games. Since the season opener, when Williams caught three passes for 86 yards and a touchdown, he's been a ghost. He's getting open but not getting the throws. The Cowboys traded three picks, including a first-rounder, for Williams last year.
8. Practice better. After a loss to Denver, Brooking and Hamlin said there needs to be more accountability in this area. This could explain why the Cowboys get off to such slow starts. Last week, the Cowboys were very businesslike in their approach in practice. There were guys getting on each other and asking for people to be accountable. In the game, Witten and Brooking were getting on players for mistakes and encouraging them. Secondary coach Dave Campo also was seen yelling at players for mistakes.
9. Better starts to games. The offense has failed to score on the first drive in the past three games. In this time, the Cowboys missed a field goal and punted twice. Ware said he doesn't know why the team gets off to slow starts. And DE Marcus Spears' response to the question of slow starts: "Offense or defense?"
10. Winning home games. The Cowboys went 6-2 at home last season, but lost the final home game at Texas Stadium and the first home game at Cowboys Stadium. Their first home game after the bye is against Atlanta, but games after that versus Seattle, Washington and Oakland are winnable. The Cowboys can't afford to lose these home games. If playoff spots are on the line in December, home games against San Diego and Philadelphia will prove vital.
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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