NASHVILLE, Tenn – As the Titans' home opener approaches, we continue to look at the key matchups heading into Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Titans can start the season 2-0 for the first time since 2008 with a victory at LP Field.
That said, I asked DallasCowboys.com Staff Writer David Helman three questions about the Cowboys from the Dallas perspective.
1. JF: You've had a number of suspensions and injuries on the defensive side of the football. How difficult has that been for this team and do you see the defense as something that will improve as the season goes on? Does that make DeMarcus Ware missed even more?
DH:** That's been the story of 2014 to this point, and it doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. This defense was in a challenging spot before Sean Lee tore his ACL in May, and the hits have kept coming since then – second-round draft pick DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot in July, and Orlando Scandrick was suspended for four-games in August.
Even after the defense played a better-than-expected game against San Francisco, the Cowboys are now coping with the fact that starting weak side linebacker Justin Durant is likely out for at least the next three to four weeks with a groin strain.
I wouldn't go as far as to say it makes DeMarcus Ware even more missed. Truthfully, the past two seasons have shown that he might not be capable of carrying a subpar defense on his own anymore – which is what he'd be doing in Dallas this year. The hope for this defense is that unsung players like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, Rolando McClain and J.J. Wilcox can up their games and hold on until guys like Scandrick and Lawrence can return to the team.
I don't think this group has the talent to finish in the top half of the league, but if they get the right breaks and stop losing players, they might be able to improve on last season's No. 32 ranking.
2. JF: The Cowboys' offense seems to always be Jekyll and Hyde. What's the reason for the lack of consistency over the course of the past few seasons?
DH:** The obvious answer in years past would be the offensive line, which killed any hope of a run game or quarterback protection in recent seasons. The Cowboys have revamped that problem spot, though, with three first-round selections in the past four years.
Now I think the problem is just trusting in that foundation. DeMarco Murray averaged five yards per carry against the 49ers last weekend, but on two key occasions the Cowboys took the ball out of his hands near the goal line.
On a 2nd-and-1 from the San Francisco 2-yard line, Tony Romo checked out of a run in favor of a pass, and was subsequently sacked. Two possessions later he opted for a throw on 1st-and-5 from the San Francisco 5-yard line, and he was intercepted. Murray didn't receive a red zone touch in the first half, when the score was still manageable.
The Cowboys are always going to go the way that Romo goes – he's their best chance for success with the talent around him. But while this might have been a one-man show at one point in time, you'd like to think there's some more faith in the supporting cast in 2014.
3. JF: Is Demarco Murray the best Cowboys running back since Emmitt Smith?
DH:** This is a tricky question to answer, simply because of the credentials of a player like Emmitt Smith and what he means to this franchise. Comparing any player to one of the game's all-time great backs is always going to raise eyebrows.
That said, I think Murray probably is. He's only played three seasons in Dallas, but he is already No. 10 on the Cowboys' all-time rushing list. If he has another season like 2013, he could climb as high as No. 7 this year. In fact, his 1,121-yard effort last year was the best rushing total for a Cowboys running back since Smith.
You could perhaps make an argument for Julius Jones and Marion Barber – both of whom have more yards and touchdowns than Murray. But Murray's ceiling is higher. He's averaging more yards per game and more yards per carry than Jones and Barber, and that's with an average of just 16 carries per game.
Murray's biggest issue to this point is health. He's missed 11 games in his brief career – three in 2011, six in 2012 and two in 2013 – and has left several more with injuries. It's probably impossible to match Smiths' amazing longevity, with just seven missed games in 13 seasons with the Cowboys, but Murray will need to stay healthy if he's going to continue climbing in the record books.
More importantly, he needs to stay on the field – and continue producing while he's out there – if the Cowboys are going to re-sign him. His rookie contract expires after this year, and team officials have already said they don't plan on negotiating a deal during the season.
In addition, I answered three Titans-related questions for DallasCowboys.com going into this weekend's matchup.
1. DH: It's early, but the Titans' 3-4 defense looked outstanding in Kansas City. What are the expectations for this year's defense in the new scheme?
JF:** If there's anyone who can transition a defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, it's Titans new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Horton made a similar change in 2013 during his only season with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns went from the 23rd-ranked defense in 2012 to the ninth-ranked defense in 2013 with Horton as defensive coordinator.
Regardless, the change in scheme was a huge offseason storyline and remained somewhat of a mystery during the preseason.* *Horton kept things close to the chest and didn't show much. The unit allowed a touchdown on the opening possession of each of the first three preseason games, but it was hard to decide whether it was truly a cause for concern.
Horton and the defense quickly dispelled any rumblings about the defense with a dominant Week 1 performance. The Titans used a variety of three-man and four-man pass rushes as well as blitz packages we never saw during the preseason.
The Titans kept Alex Smith off balance all game long, sacking him four times and intercepting him on three occasions. Each of the three picks came on a four man-pass rush. It all starts with Jurrell Casey, who will be one of the best 3-4 ends in the league this year. He just signed a new multi-year extension and rewarded the Titans with the best Week 1 performance for a 3-4 defensive end apart from J.J. Watt according, to Pro Football Focus.
Most notably, the Titans shut down Chiefs star running back Jamaal Charles to the tune of 34 total yards (19 rushing, 15 receiving). That's no small feat in today's offensive-driven NFL.
2. DH: Who do the Cowboys need to be most worried about in this game?
JF:** The Titans have an underrated set of offensive weapons. Last week against the Chiefs, quarterback Jake Locker completed 22 passes to eight different receivers. The most notable guys you'll want to watch for are Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter.
In his third year, Wright is a legit star-in-the-making who is coming off a 94 reception season in 2013. That's good enough for fifth on the Titans single-season receptions list, just seven shy of Charley Hennigan's record of 101. He excels at finding soft spots in the defense and getting up field once he gets the ball. His six-yard touchdown against the Chiefs was exhibit A, catching the ball at the four-yard line and making a guy miss before diving for the pylon.
As for Hunter, he received plenty of hype over the offseason and it's been warranted thus far. The second-year receiver from Tennessee had a monster preseason, finishing second in the league in receiving yards and scoring two touchdowns. His success continued in Week 1 when he paced the Titans with 63 receiving yards on three receptions. At 6-feet 4-inches, Hunter is Tennessee's top red zone target and provides a true vertical threat with 4.44 second 40-yard speed.
3. DH: The Titans haven't started a season 2-0 since 2008, when they finished 13-3. Would a win Sunday make a significant statement about this team?
JF:** New Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt has been steady in his message to the team, as well as Titans fans. He doesn't expect patience from anyone and the objective is to win now. There hasn't been any talk of a rebuild or transitional period.
The Titans went 7-9 last season without Jake Locker for the majority of the campaign, and the team feels the pieces are in place for a run at the AFC South crown this season.
So while a win Sunday might make a significant statement to national media, it won't come as a surprise to anyone inside the Titans locker room.