With the first game of a highly anticipated regular season only six days away, I can not wait any longer to start talking about meaningful games and big name players, rather than preseason matchups and fringe roster filler. As we all know, the first game of the season will be against "America's Team", the Dallas Cowboys, in newly renamed MetLife Stadium. Take the jump for the pivotal matchups and key players in the season opener.
Last season, the Cowboys were a pass-heavy team, finishing with 576 pass attempts (good for 9th in the league) and 428 rushes (tied with four other teams for 15th in the league). I found this stat to be interesting because starting QB Tony Romo went down with an injury early in the season, so the 'Boys rolled with backup Jon Kitna under center for 10 games. Despite not having Romo, the Cowboys were actually very successful passing the ball, finishing just behind the Packers for 6th players in passing yards per game. This all leads into the first key of the game: Pass Defense.
Brodney Pool vs. Jason Witten: Assuming that Revis Island and Antonio Cromartie shut down Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, Tony Romo will be looking for his most familiar target. Jason Witten has seemingly been around forever, but is still only 29 years old, and looks like he has a few elite years left in him. He set career highs in TD's last year with 9, pairing that with 94 catches and 1000 yards. Jim Leonhard has looked pretty decent coming off his broken leg, but we all know that he can be a little overwhelmed in pass defense, especially against bigger targets like Jason Witten. Dwight Lowery is gone and nobody wants Eric Smith anywhere near pass protection. This is where Brodney Pool comes in. He really came on during the later parts of last season, and if anyone on the Jets roster can stay with Witten, it would be Pool. Look for Romo to test this matchup early and often.
Mark Sanchez vs. Dallas CB's: The Cowboys' cornerback situation appears to be in a bit of a flux, as Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman appear to be fighting off Orlando Scandrick, who was just awarded with a five year contract extension. Whoever will be lined up against Santonio Holmes will have quite a bit on their plate. The Cowboys allowed the most passing touchdowns in the NFL last year with 33, and were 7th in yards allowed. If there was ever a game to take the kid gloves off of The Sanchize, this would be it. If Sanchez carves up the Dallas secondary (as he is very capable of doing), it would set the tone and could possibly give him confidence going into his third season.
Jets O-line vs. DeMarcus Ware: The Dallas Cowboys were decidedly middle of the pack last year rushing the passer as a team, but don't blame that on DeMarcus Ware. The big fella had 66 tackles and 15.5 sacks, the latter of which led the entire NFL. The Cowboys like to move him around, but he is officially listed as a ROLB, so it will be Brick and Slauson matched up with him more often than not. If they can protect Sanchez from this beast of a man, it will give him time to pick apart a sub-par Dallas secondary.
Some of these keys might have been a little to the obvious side, but there is one key that I'm sure nobody on ESPN will even imagine talking about:
The 'Boys last year were second in Punt Return Average. Dez Bryant proved to be an electric returner, and now that he is one year older (and possibly one year wiser), he will look to build upon his punt return success. The Jets have lost special team gunner Brad Smith and very important contributors in James Ihedigbo and Dwight Lowery. Never bet against Mike Westhoff, but this will be a good a test as any.