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Cowboys vs. Ravens: Keys to the game

While a trip to Baltimore doesn't seem promising for a struggling Dallas team, if you look closely enough, there are some reasons for optimism.

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Cowboys follow up their bye week with a trip to Baltimore to play the Ravens, which is not exactly the easiest game to have to try and get the ship righted. It starts a rather nasty stretch of four road games in five weeks, and the lone home game is against a revenge-seeking New York Giants team. This may be a stretch of games that the team needs to survive as much as anything, so they can get to a somewhat easier looking portion late in the year.

The Cowboys, however, are hoping to do more than just survive. They would like to replicate the season-opening success they had going into a hostile stadium against a tough opponent. Of course, there aren't many home field advantages better than Baltimore's. They have not lost a home game since November 22, 2009. Dallas has its work cut out for it.

Despite the rather daunting challenge, this is not a game that Cowboys fans should automatically chalk up as a loss.

While the Ravens are coming off of a road win against the Kansas City Chiefs, it was a game in which the team showed some vulnerability. After putting up an average of over 33 points per game in the first four weeks, the Ravens could only manage three field goals against the Chiefs and barely won 9-6. If the Cowboys can get into a defensive struggle, and avoid mistakes, they may be able pull a win off.

It is going to depend on which Ravens show up, the ones that were racking up big numbers the first four weeks, or the ones that Kansas City almost upset.

Joe Flacco was off to a great start for the season, averaging a shade over 317 yards a game passing the first four weeks, but the Chiefs held him to 187 yards (the team only had 165 yards net when the four sacks for 22 yards was factored in). The Chiefs found a way to shut down the passing game, and Rob Ryan is certainly pouring over that video with rapt attention. Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta have been the main targets this year.

What the Ravens did have offensively against the Chiefs was Ray Rice, who put up 102 yards rushing. He has been a consistent offensive threat, with this being his second 100 yard game, and he barely missed in week 2 with a 99 yard effort. He is also the fourth best pass receiver for the team. Dallas is going to have to account for him in both phases of the game, or he could be enough offense to beat the team on his own.

And also consistent is the Ravens defense, led by the seemingly ageless Ray Lewis and the also well-seasoned Ed Reed. Add in pass rushing threats Dannell Ellerbe and Haloti Ngata, and the Cowboys still need to get the issues on the offensive line under control, and fast. However, while the Baltimore defense has been effective in keeping the opponents from scoring, tied for eighth in the league in points allowed, they have been a good bit softer than in recent years in the yardage they have given up. They are only ranked twenty-sixth in yards given up, yielding almost 380 per game.

Surprisingly, Baltimore is statistically the easiest rushing defense that Dallas has faced so far this season, and has been far less effective than the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Chicago Bears against the run. They are closer to the New York Giants on paper - and the Giants gave up over 100 yards to DeMarco Murray.

Is it possible that the feared Ravens defense is the opportunity for Dallas to get over its running game woes? Although it sounds a bit far-fetched when you first consider it, the numbers this year show that it may just be the chance the Cowboys need. Baltimore does have a slight appearance of living on its reputation right now as far as being a shutdown defense.

If (and we may be saying this for a while) Dallas can just get some consistently adequate play out of its offensive line, it could see Murray break a few runs, and most importantly, it could see itself getting good pickups on first and second down. This would alleviate some of the pressure on Tony Romo to make up the yards in third and long with his arm, which should cut down on mistakes, and get the passing game going as well.

While the formula of holding the opposing quarterback in check and establishing your own ground game may seem a bit too simplistic, it looks to be exactly what the Cowboys need to do, and something that may be very doable with the tools they bring to the game. The big issue is basically going to be execution. If the Cowboys can execute better than they have the past three games, then they can win this contest. That is, unfortunately, a big if - but after the bye week, there may be reason to hope.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.