2012 NFC East preview (cont.)
What the Cowboys do best: Throw the football.
There remains a large group of people out there who want to blame all of the Cowboys' ills on Tony Romo (you can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes). And while Romo has yet to take this franchise to the promised land, the truth is that he continues to put up terrific numbers when he's healthy. He did it again in 2011 (4,184 yards, 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), despite Miles Austin missing six games and Dez Bryant being hobbled for a decent chunk of time. Dallas still finished with the seventh-most passing yards and fifth-most passing TDs in football.
What the Cowboys need to improve: Defending the pass.
The Cowboys probably would have made the playoffs last year if not for an anemic secondary. In losing four of their final five games, Dallas allowed an average of 306 yards through the air. It did what it could to address the problem this offseason, paying big bucks for Brandon Carr and trading up in the draft for Morris Claiborne. Carr picked off two passes in Dallas' second preseason game, so the very early returns look promising.
Which Cowboy needs to step up: Kevin Ogletree, receiver.
Laurent Robinson was a savior for Dallas' passing game last season -- he caught 54 balls and scored 11 times to help the Cowboys overcome Austin's ailments. Robinson turned that breakthrough season into a lucrative contract in Jacksonville, leaving the Cowboys without their safety net. Enter Ogletree. Now in his fourth year with the team, Ogletree has the inside track on the No. 3 gig, ahead of guys like Danny Coale and Dwayne Harris. Given the attention the Cowboys' big boys draw (not to mention Jason Witten's spleen injury), Ogletree should get every opportunity to prove himself.
Predicted record: 8-8.
Consider this a little bit of bet hedging. If all of the Cowboys' weapons (including DeMarco Murray, who might be ready for a huge season) stay on the field and the secondary makes some steady improvement, this is a team that can win the division. However, it all has to go right ... and the schedule does them no favors. Dallas opens on the road against the Giants and Seahawks, then finishes with a trying December (Philadelphia, at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, at Washington). The Cowboys were right there last season, 7-4 and headed toward a division crown, before it all fell apart. This season likely will depend on the closing stretch again.
What the Redskins do best: Let the linebackers lead the way.
If things go according to plan, what the Redskins actually do best will have something to do with Robert Griffin III, in 2012 and well beyond. The strength of last year's team, though -- and one of the apparent strengths of this year's squad -- is at the linebacking spot in the 3-4 setup. Last year's leading tackler, London Fletcher, is back at one of the inside spots and will line up next to rising youngster Perry Riley. On the outside sit Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, the team's leaders in sacks with 9.0 and 7.5, respectively. Washington has not always had answers on the defensive line or in the secondary, but the team's linebackers are stout.
What the Redskins need to improve: Their quarterback play.
Too obvious? Probably. But the fact of the matter is that Robert Griffin III is in D.C. this season because the Redskins franchise has been in search of a definitive No. 1 quarterback for about two decades. The QB issues have been almost comical in recent years, with Jason Campbell giving way to Donovan McNabb who, in turn, handed things off to the two-headed monster of Rex Grossman and John Beck.
The Redskins' problems running the football (25th last season) have gone hand-in-hand with the dreadful QB play. Defenses have just loaded the box against Washington, forcing Mike Shanahan's club to the air. Last season, the Redskins attempted more passes than all but four teams ... and threw more interceptions than all but three.
Which Redskin needs to step up: Tyler Polumbus, right tackle.
Take your pick along Washington's offensive line. The Redskins are having enough trouble just putting five healthy bodies out there together for back-to-back practices, let alone getting the group to gel in front of Griffin. They signed Polumbus last November, and he was, to be honest, pretty miserable in limited action for the remainder of the 2011 season. With projected right tackle Jamaal Brown on the PUP list, his return uncertain, Polumbus could wind up starting by default. For Griffin's sake and the sake of the entire offense, Washington must be better protecting up front.
Predicted record: 6-10.
Griffin makes the Redskins a much more dangerous team, as does the addition of Pierre Garcon at wide receiver. That said, it's easier to see Washington challenging for a playoff spot in 2013 or 2014 than it is 2012. After a difficult Week 1 trip to New Orleans, the Redskins face a critical three-game stretch to close out September -- at St. Louis, vs. Cincinnati, at Tampa Bay. All three games could go either way. If Washington can go 2-1 or 3-0, the timetable for success might get moved up.
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