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D-Line Domination Key To Cowboys-Chargers

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DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys' defensive line raided the Rams in Week 3. Can they do the same against a banged-up Chargers' front? Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys' defensive line raided the Rams in Week 3. Can they do the same against a banged-up Chargers' front? Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

NFL games are too complex to boil predictions down to a single factor. But heading into Week 4, both the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers seem to think defensive line play could be the scale-tipping element.

Charger DE Corey Liuget told The San Diego Union-Tribune that rattling Romo was vital to his team’s success. Presumably because the film reveals Romo’s been getting superb pass protection on his deeper drops and has yet to throw a blameworthy interception, or because San Diego has the league’s worst pass defense. Whichever.

In Dallas, the news that Anthony Spencer will have season-ending knee surgery hasn’t caused the panic it would have three weeks ago. Fact is, the Chargers have an injury-bogged, patchwork O-line, and the Cowboys currently look like one of the best defensive fronts in the league. That’s enough optimism for now.

For San Diego, the question remains, “how many starters will be healthy enough to adequately contribute on Sunday?”

According to this report, LT King Dunlap (concussion) didn’t practice Wednesday and will be a game-time decision. RT D.J. Fluker (concussion) is back in pads, but has only two games of NFL experience to his credit. Per bloggingtheboys.com, LG Chad Reinhart is dealing with turf toe, C Nick Hardwick is battling shin splints and RG Jeromey Clary has a sore clavicle. None practiced on Wednesday, and none will be 100 percent if he plays Sunday.

The coaching of Rod Marinelli and the emergence of George Selvie and Nick Hayden have completely flipped the asset-liability status of the Dallas D-line. Hatcher’s adjustment to defensive tackle has been as smooth as could be desired, and DeMarcus Ware is on pace for another career year. Their pass rush is equal parts speed, strength and agility; their run defense is grounded in intelligent read-and-reacts and consistently penetrates the backfield. With rangy linebackers who tackle exceptionally well behind them, they can afford to be aggressive with their first step and snap count timing. And after an offseason of doubt, they play with a grudge, and it’s been unusually effective.

Marinelli’s scheme -- according to this article -- hinges on aggressiveness, and it’s produced 13 sacks thus far, including seven on third down. Collectively, the Cowboys rank fourth on third-down defense with a conversion rate of just under 30 percent. According to footballoutsiders.com, the Cowboys boast the NFL’s No. 4 run-stuffing defense – a metric defined by running plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. They also have the league’s No. 3 adjusted sack rate – a figure that calculates sacks in terms of drop-back pass attempts.

So for Cowboys fans, it’s easy to see why dominating the trenches bodes so much importance and influence. Ironically, until the season started, both position sets were considered huge areas of neglect, concern and disarray.

Jerry Jones appears to have gotten them right.

But make no mistake, this is a huge game. With Washington floundering heading into Oakland, Philadelphia squaring off against Denver and New York battling unbeaten Kansas City – all on the road – Dallas is poised to take a big divisional lead. A win would represent a very acceptable start to the first quarter of 2013, and for the first time in years, a sign of consistency at this juncture.

If the Cowboys control the trenches – especially on defense – they’ll have a good shot of accomplishing that.