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NFL Preview - Dallas at Jacksonville
NFL Preview - Dallas at Jacksonville
The site of Terrell Owens' formal debut as a Dallas Cowboy will be the same place where the controversial wide receiver logged one of his defining moments as a pro.
It was Feb. 6, 2005 when a hobbled Owens defied the odds to suit up for the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX at ALLTEL Stadium, and 19-plus months later, Owens returns to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars in his long- anticipated debut with Dallas.
It was after his nine-catch, 122-yard performance in the Eagles' loss to the Patriots that things started to unravel for Owens in Philadelphia. A public feud with quarterback Donovan McNabb and a contract dispute with the team hastened the five-time Pro Bowler's season-ending suspension seven games into the 2005 campaign. Owens was released by the Eagles on March 14th and signed four days later by the Cowboys, with whom he has seemed to enjoy a strained relationship as well. The receiver scarcely practiced during training camp, and played only briefly in one preseason game.
The hoopla surrounding Owens figures to overshadow the initial work of a Jacksonville Jaguars team that comes off its first postseason appearance since 1999. Jack Del Rio's team will be attempting to build upon last season's 12-4 finish in 2006, and will also be trying to put a disappointing 28-3 loss to the Patriots in an AFC Wild Card game behind them.
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Dallas has a 2-1 lead in its all-time series against Jacksonville, including a 21-19 home victory in the most recent meeting, in 2002. The Jaguars, who will be hosting the Cowboys for the first time, notched their only win in the series in 2000, a 23-17 overtime decision at Texas Stadium.
Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells is 3-1 in his career against Jacksonville, including playoff wins for his Patriots in 1996 and Jets in 1998. Parcells' New England team defeated the Jaguars for the 1996 AFC Championship. The Jaguars' Del Rio, who played linebacker for the Cowboys from 1989 through 1991, will be meeting both Parcells and his former team for the first time as a head coach.
COWBOYS OFFENSE VS. JAGUARS DEFENSE
Seeking to locate Owens downfield will be Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe (3639 passing yards, 23 TD, 17 INT), who begins his second season as the starter in Big D. The 34-year-old Bledsoe started all 16 games for the Cowboys last season, showing his typical arm strength and touch but also displaying a continued lack of mobility. Bledsoe was sacked an NFC-high 49 times in 2005, and Dallas did little to upgrade its offensive line in the offseason. Left tackle Flozell Adams is back to protect Bledsoe's blind side, while Bears castoff Marc Colombo is projected as the starter on the right side. When he gets time, Bledsoe will throw to targets including Owens (47 receptions, 6 TD with Philadelphia), holdover Terry Glenn (62 receptions, 7 TD), and tight ends Jason Witten (66 receptions, 6 TD) and Anthony Fasano. Fasano, a second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, caught 47 passes as a junior with the Irish in 2005.
Bledsoe and Owens will both have their work cut out for them on Sunday, as they go up against a Jacksonville team that ranked seventh in the league against the pass a year ago and has upgraded their secondary. Strong safety Donovin Darius (6 tackles) is back after missing the final 14 games of 2005 with a torn ACL, and ex-Viking Brian Williams (4 INT with Minnesota) is in to hold down one of the corners, opposite Rashean Mathis (5 INT). Another holdover, Deon Grant (3 INT), returns at free safety. The work of the defensive backs figures to be made easier by a Jaguar pass rush that ranked among league leaders with 47 sacks last season. Ends Reggie Hayward (8.5 sacks) and Paul Spicer (7.5 sacks), who were 1-2 on the team in sacks a year ago, each return to the starting lineup.
Though Bledsoe, Owens, and the passing game will garner many of the headlines, Parcells will also be concerned with the state of a running game that has failed to offer much in the way of consistency during his tenure. Due for a breakout season is third-year running back Julius Jones (993 rushing yards, 5 TD, 35 receptions), who has missed 11 games due to injury during his first two seasons in the league but has shown flashes of greatness when healthy. Spelling Jones against the Jaguars will be Marion Barber III (538 rushing yards, 5 TD, 18 receptions), who started two games in Jones' absence a year ago.
Running the football might be option number one for Dallas on Sunday, as Jacksonville could be without two key starters in the run-stopping game. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (42 tackles, 1 sack), who injured his knee in practice on Wednesday, is not expected to play. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson (131 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 INT), the team's leading tackler a year ago, is considered questionable with a knee sprain of his own. Stroud will likely be replaced in the lineup by Rob Meier (35 tackles, 6 sacks), who normally plays on passing downs but would be starting next to tackle John Henderson (70 tackles, 3 sacks). Peterson's absence would probably force outside linebacker Daryl Smith (81 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) to shift to the middle, with Jorge Cordova, who missed all of his first two pro seasons due to injury, starting on the outside. Rounding out the LB corps is Nick Greisen (79 tackles, 1 sack with Giants), who was signed by the Jags in April after opening 12 games with the Giants last season.
JAGUARS OFFENSE VS. COWBOYS DEFENSE
Jacksonville fans will be eager to take in the work of Byron Leftwich (2123 passing yards, 15 TD, 5 INT) and a Jaguar passing game that will be undergoing some changes in 2006. Gone is Jimmy Smith, who compiled over 12,000 receiving yards in 11 seasons with the team, and pressed into primary receiving roles are players like Matt Jones (36 receptions, 5 TD), Ernest Wilford (41 receptions, 7 TD), and Reggie Williams (35 receptions). Jones, the converted quarterback who the team selected in the first round of the 2005 draft, is expected to become the team's No. 1 receiver. Leftwich, who is looking to start all 16 games for the first time in his four-year pro career, will also be targeting holdover tight ends Kyle Brady and George Wrighster down the field on Sunday. Marcedes Lewis, the team's 2006 first-round draft choice, is considered doubtful with an ankle injury. A Jacksonville o-line that gave up a modest 32 sacks last season returns basically intact.
Dallas was 11th in the NFL against the pass last season, and with the defense's completed transition from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, Parcells is hoping to improve on that showing. The pass rush will again feature Demarcus Ware (8 sacks) and Greg Ellis (8 sacks), with Ellis now serving at outside linebacker after spending the first eight years of his pro career at end. The pressure applied by those two players is supposed to make life easier for a secondary that returns basically intact. Anthony Henry (3 INT) and Terence Newman (3 INT) will again appear at the corners, while Roy Williams (81 tackles, 3 INT, 2.5 sacks), who comes off his third straight Pro Bowl appearance, occupies strong safety. Incumbent free safety Keith Davis (66 tackles) will probably play in some capacity on Sunday, but the starting nod at that position could go to fifth-round draft choice Pat Watkins (Florida State).
Set to begin his ninth season in the Jacksonville backfield is running back Fred Taylor (787 rushing yards, 3 TD, 13 receptions), who comes off his least productive season in four years and will have to dispel the myth that he is washed up at age 30. Taylor missed five games due to injury last season, and managed a total of three touchdowns for the second consecutive season. If Taylor falters, the team will likely go to either second-round draft pick Maurice Jones-Drew (UCLA), the 5-foot-7 back who rushed for over 2,500 yards in three years as a Bruin, or holdover Alvin Pearman (149 rushing yards, 1 TD, 32 receptions). With fullback Greg Jones out for the year with a torn ACL, Derrick Wimbush (12 rushing yards, 1 TD) could get the nod in short-yardage situations.
Slowing Taylor and the Jaguars running game will be one of the main directives on Sunday for inside linebacker Akin Ayodele (72 tackles, 2 sacks with the Jaguars), who signed with Dallas as a free agent in March following a successful four-year run in Jacksonville. Ayodele and fellow ILB Bradie James (93 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will be at the center of the run-stopping effort, with nose tackle Jason Ferguson (37 tackles, 1 sack) and ends Chris Canty (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Marcus Spears (31 tackles, 1.5 sacks) looking to set the linebackers up for success with their work up front. James led Dallas in tackles last season, while starting all 16 games for America's Team.
Jacksonville was already on shaky ground coming into this game, since an offense that was inconsistent a year ago was going to be featuring a different, less-experienced look at receiver. Then, Peterson and Stroud got hurt, perhaps robbing the team of two vital members of its defensive unit. Against some opponents, the Jaguars might be able to overcome those problems, but against the deep, hard-nosed Cowboys, things won't be so easy. Look for Dallas to run the ball straight at Jacksonville's hamstrung defensive middle, to limit the big-play ability of Leftwich and the Jaguar offense, and to leave north Florida with a victory.
-> Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 17, Jaguars 9, plave your bet
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