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Defensive Growing Pains Could Kill The Cowboys' Season

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Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has brought a new playbook to Dallas, and if he expects his players to contribute to a playoff run, he has to make sure they're well-acclimated by Week 1. (Photo By Mike Zarrilli, Getty Images)
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has brought a new playbook to Dallas, and if he expects his players to contribute to a playoff run, he has to make sure they're well-acclimated by Week 1. (Photo By Mike Zarrilli, Getty Images)

When it comes to the internal forces that could kill the Dallas Cowboys in 2013, growing pains of instituting the 4-3 defense could be the biggest and most overlooked threat of all. It’s not because Monte Kiffin’s scheme is so radically different from Rob Ryan’s — it’s not. NFL defenses now have so many pre-snap looks, so many nickel and dime situations and so many versatile athletes that terms like 4-3 and 3-4 have become little more than verbal backbones of depth charts. Nor is it because the players executing the scheme aren’t up to par. Injury histories aside, this group is loaded with talent — albeit a mixed bag of youth, experience and varying levels of proven depth.

No, growing pains are a troubling factor because, although they tend to be short-lived, they cause the most damage early in the season — and that’s a stretch the Cowboys can ill-afford to blow. They have four of six at home to start. A chance to make a huge statement with an opening-day victory against the New York Giants, road games against Kansas City — a young, up-and-coming team that isn’t quite there yet — and San Diego — a tough commute but against a team that has hit rock bottom — and a home bout against a St. Louis offense that has lost its star running back and wide receiver.

There’s no reason the Cowboys can’t start 5-1 (a loss to Denver in Week 5) — unless injuries or defensive growing pains get in the way. The offensive line remains a liability, but other than that, there’s not much to worry about with the offense. The weak spots on defense — safety, strongside linebacker and defensive tackle — aren’t egregiously weak, and in any case, they’re not going to improve between now and September.

Bottom line: Offensively, the Cowboys have to present a more balanced attack that allows them to control the possession battle; defensively, they have to bring discipline to their new scheme. That means not giving up huge plays, minimizing penalties, making open-field tackles and, above all, winning third-down and short-yardage battles.

Getting this defense ready to make plays that generate legit momentum by Week 1 is immeasurably crucial. In 2013, there’s no time for growing pains and bumps in the road that eventually become positive learning experiences; the Cowboys’ schedule is too difficult in later weeks to bear out a poor start.

Five wins would be ideal; four would be acceptable. Three might even be manageable given the Cowboys have a trio of winnable games against Philadelphia, Detroit and Minnesota in Weeks 7 through 9. But any fewer than six wins through nine games, and it’s curtains for 2013 and back to job-hunting for Jason Garrett.

It all goes back to the divisional title being the only route to the playoffs. Washington’s schedule is the toughest; Atlanta and San Francisco are its two “unique” opponents that aren’t part of a larger divisional matchup. The Redskins also travel to Green Bay and Denver in Week 2 and 8, respectively, and get the Giants twice in their last five games.

Philadelphia’s is the easiest — Arizona and Tampa Bay are their “unique” games — but then the Eagles are the NFC East’s worse team by a decent margin.

From a scheduling standpoint, the Giants look like the Cowboys’ biggest contenders. They have Seattle in Week 15, but at home. New York will also enjoy home-field advantage against Green Bay, Denver and Minnesota, and make its trip to Chicago before the weather becomes miserable.

The window to the divisional title and, subsequently, the playoffs is more than open for the Cowboys. But nothing will close it faster than a slow start. And aside from injuries, nothing will facilitate a slow start like defensive growing pains.