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Exploiting their weaknesses: The Dallas Cowboys

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Reviewing the Dallas Cowboys' regular season and searching for weaknesses that the Detroit Lions can exploit on Sunday.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Playoff time is here, and the Detroit Lions find themselves in unfamiliar territory: still alive. Unfortunately, the Lions start the postseason opposite one of the hottest teams in the NFC. The Dallas Cowboys finished the regular season with four straight wins, with an average margin of victory of 21.5 points in December. But the Cowboys are hardly a perfect team. They can be beat. So let's break down how the Lions may be able to wear down the Cowboys and win their first playoff game since 1991.

Offense

First, the bad news. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys have the fourth-ranked offense, including the fourth-best passing offense and the third-best rushing attack. Their quarterback leads the league in passer rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt and ESPN's QBR stat. Their running back gained almost 500 yards more than anyone else in the NFL and led the league in rushing touchdowns. Their No. 1 receiver led the league in receiving touchdowns. And their offensive line features two All-Pro players.

So... uh... good news? There's not much. While their offensive line is prolific in run blocking (ranked first, according to Football Outsiders), they are average at protecting the quarterback. Although they have allowed just 30 sacks on the year (tied for ninth-fewest), their adjusted sack rate of 6.3 percent ranks them 17th in the league.

And getting pressure on Tony Romo is absolutely key to stopping their offense. The Cowboys have turned the ball over 25 times, which is the 13th-most in the NFL. While Romo has only thrown three interceptions in the past eight games -- like anyone -- he's prone to making mistakes under pressure. In the two games Romo had multiple interceptions this season, he was sacked a total of seven times. Now let's watch some Romo interception goodness:

romo pick 1

The Philadelphia Eagles do a good job of disguising pressure, and it forces Romo out of the pocket a little earlier than needed. As Romo slides his body to his left, he throws up a terrible ball that is easily picked off.

romo pick 2

Here, the San Francisco 49ers don't get pressure initially. Coverage holds up long enough for the defensive end to finally get to Romo. As Romo flushes out -- this time to his right -- he makes the kind of awful decision that his career (rightfully or not) has been defined by.

The more often the Lions can force Romo out of the pocket, the better their chances at creating a crucial turnover.

The Lions can also attack the Cowboys' offense by stopping the run, something Detroit has done with ease all year. The Cowboys running game has been equally as good as their pass offense, but they haven't been quite as impressive lately. Over at Grantland, Bill Barnwell broke down how DeMarco Murray has been significantly less impressive over the final quarter of the season:

Before the bye, Murray combined absurd volume with elite efficiency; afterward, while he retained virtually all of the volume, he was merely average on a per-carry basis. You might expect a player being slowed down by overuse to lack the acceleration needed for big plays, but Murray actually had something close to a proportional number of his runs of 20 yards or more show up during those final six games. Really, Murray’s slowdown came from the slog of volume. On first-and-10 before the bye, Murray ran the ball 151 times for 868 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Afterward, he ran the ball 87 times for just 387 yards, gaining 4.5 yards per attempt.

With Murray's decline and Detroit's impressive defense, the Lions certainly have a good shot at making the Cowboys one-dimensional.

Defense

Things look a little more optimistic when analyzing the Cowboys defense. While they are not the dumpster fire that many were expecting after Sean Lee was injured during OTAs, they are still a below-average unit.

Dallas ranks 22nd in defensive DVOA (22nd in pass defense, 23rd in run defense). They don't really do anything particularly amazing on defense, though admittedly, they've been much better lately.

And for all of the offensive line woes the Lions are going through, they'll be relieved to know that the Cowboys' defense ranks 29th in adjusted sack rate.

But if we're looking for a specific weakness to exploit, look no further than the Cowboys' linebacking crew. Dallas has dealt with a few injuries in this unit, including the aforementioned Lee and former Lion Justin Durant. While Rolando McClain has done a good job patrolling the middle, the Cowboys have struggled to find a supporting cast for McClain.

lb poor 1

Watch No. 59, rookie Anthony Hitchens. Hitchens bites HARD on the read-option. This leaves the crossing route wide open over the middle of the field. This was not an isolated incident:

lb poor 2

Again the Eagles come with a read-option, and again it's Hitchens who gets out of position and allows the crossing route to break open over the middle of the field.

Hitchens is labeled as questionable for the game on Sunday with an ankle injury. If he can't go, it will likely be Kyle Wilber filling his spot. Wilber is a former fourth-round pick who only has nine starts in his three-year career.

With all of that inexperience on the second level, the Lions would be wise to run misdirection plays like the Eagles above. Obviously the Lions don't have the rushing attack that the Eagles have, so their play-action may not be as effective. But the Lions have a handful of athletic offensive weapons who can challenge the Cowboys' poor linebackers. Theo Riddick and Reggie Bush have embarrassed linebackers all season, and I fully expect to see one or both of them heavily involved in the passing game this week. With this big mismatch, the Lions offense may see a revival this week against the Cowboys.