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Cowboys' offensive issues a simple fix; Improving 49ers' defense

Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.

Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!

Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! This week, he reached out to YOU the fans to see what issues your team has that you'd like him to fix. Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 17. Now, let's get to the first response:

Back in August, I drove up the Ventura Freeway to attend the Dallas Cowboys' full scrimmage and catch a glimpse of new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore's new unit. Dak Prescott was the maestro that afternoon, seemingly having a blast sending guys into motion and making sure multiple shifts were coordinated in proper sequence. It seemed like the perfect offense to fit his skill set and the talent around him. At the time, Ezekiel Elliott was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, but everyone felt like he'd be back in a uniform to start the season. And he was, as the Cowboys jumped out to a quick 3-0 start against largely inferior opponents. They were the talk of the league.

Since then, though, Dallas is a dismal 4-8 and again the talk of the league. This time for all the wrong reasons. Even if I borrowed a set of those fancy, noise-cancelling headphones, it would be difficult to block out the noise that spans the spectrum. But when I examined the latest defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, I kept scratching my head. The offense didn't resemble the unit I saw in Oxnard in August. I don't believe it's Jason Garrett's fault, or the offense that Moore runs, or even the fact that star receiver Amari Cooper wasn't on the field for the Cowboys' final play.

So what's the problem? Well, they simply don't execute. I don't know why but everything was in place for them to score more than the nine points off Kai Forbath's field goals.

The Eagles' game plan included loading the box to stop Zeke, especially on early downs, so the Eagles often countered the Cowboys with an extra defensive player crowding the line of scrimmage. Zeke's final numbers (13 carries for 47) say that the plan was effective. They forced Prescott to beat him with his banged up shoulder.

There are three examples of crucial plays the Cowboys didn't make in that contest that would have gotten the Eagles out of the "eight-man box" concept that stalled the run game. The first was in the second quarter when the Cowboys faced a second-and-10 on the Eagles' 38-yard line. As they anticipated, the Eagles gave them an "eight-man box" and a six-man pressure package. It was well-blocked, and Michael Gallup and Jason Witten ran crossing routes in the middle of the field in an effort to pick a defensive player to help a receiver get open. In this instance, Jalen Mills was "rubbed off" by Witten and Gallup came free, just like he did back in August. Gallup was open with room to run after the catch, but the ball was thrown behind him. Far from ideal but Gallup actually had both hands on the ball but dropped it. Instead of having a first down, the Cowboys picked up 7 yards on third down and settled for a field goal.

The next was on a first-and-10 situation on their own 25-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Eagles rushed four defenders as Prescott stared down free safety Rodney McLeod. Meanwhile, Tavon Austin lined up wide left and ran a straight go route, blistered right past cornerback Rasul Douglas. Behind perfect protection, Prescott sailed the ball 3 yards past Austin. It could have easily been a 75-yard TD.

Later in the series on first-and-10 from their own 46, the Cowboys easily picked up the Eagles' four-man rush and McLeod began moving toward Cooper, leaving Gallup one-on-one with Jalen Mills. Gallup ran right by Mills and Dak threw his best pass all day, hitting Gallup in his hands at the 20-yard line. Unfortunately, the young receiver dropped the ball.

The Cowboys simply didn't execute. They needed to "throw the defense out" of the loaded box. The plays versus a defense that ranks 19th in passing yards allowed shut the Cowboys down and kept them out of the end zone. Philly couldn't keep Ryan Fitzpatrick out of the end zone nor Eli Manning nor Dwayne Haskins.

Maybe what I think I saw in Oxnard was a mirage. Maybe the Cowboys just aren't that good. But the plays, the design, the concepts that are being taught are sound in principle. The players just aren't making the plays that are there to be made. Maybe that is Garrett's fault. But I was a member of the offense, I wouldn't look anywhere but the mirror for answers.

The Cowboys might be tempted to keep one eye on the scoreboard to see how the Eagles are doing against the Giants, but they should refrain from doing so. They need to concentrate on making the plays that have been there for the taking. Giants QB Daniel Jones threw five TD passes last weekend against the Redskins, so maybe Jones will toss five more against the Eagles, possibly giving the Cowboys one more chance to back door their way into the playoffs. But it will take much better execution than what Dallas displayed last weekend.

Maybe the players will decide to make that happen and block out the noise that surrounds this team.

The San Francisco 49ers can finish the season Sunday night in front of a football saturated nation with a shiny 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff picture with an avenging victory in raucous Seattle. It's a tall order but one that can be very rewarding. Since having a bye in Week 4, Sunday marks the 13th consecutive week of game play for the 49ers and it shows. They appear a tad weary but some of that could be from their challenging second-half schedule. They jumped out to an 8-0 start with victories over teams that are statistically struggling this season, including Cincinnati, Washington, Cleveland and Carolina. Washington and Carolina fired their head coaches after the 49ers wiped them up while padding a lot of stats.

Along the way and while the schedule stiffened, the 49ers have lost many good players -- namely Kwon Alexander, who teamed up with Fred Warner to make one of the best inside linebacker duos in the league. Neither player came off the field before Alexander's injury and they complemented each other extremely well. Other notable players like Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, Ahkello Witherspoon and D.J. Jones have been in and out of the lineup. No one feels sorry for the number of injuries the 49ers have had to overcome throughout the season, and nor should they. I certainly don't hear anyone in Santa Clara making excuses. This is a testimony to the coaching staff in getting their next player up to speed.

The 49ers' sack numbers and takeaways have slowed within recent weeks, but I don't believe it's anything to worry about. When a team goes through a gauntlet of the Packers, Ravens and Saints (three teams that combine for a 37-8 record) and take care of the ball -- it's difficult to take the ball away. Remember, the 49ers came out of that difficult stretch with a 2-1 record despite the injuries. In fact, safety Marcell Harris was the first player to force Lamar Jackson to lose a fumble this season.

San Francisco's games have been exciting over the past two months with the blowouts coming fewer and farther in between, but that's what happens with division games late in the season. These teams know each other so well that it is difficult to apply any new wrinkles to a game plan. The encouraging thing for the Niners is that they keep making huge plays that determine the outcome. Warner's interception that was returned for a TD right before halftime in last week's game against the Rams swung the momentum San Francisco's way. And in the final minute of huge wins against the Saints and Rams, Jimmy Garoppolo found George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders for huge completions to set up game-winning kicks by Robbie Gould. Everyone has chipped in to the Niners' success.

Let's look back when looking ahead to Sunday's game. In the 49ers' first meeting with the Seahawks, an overtime loss at home, Jadeveon Clowney played his best game of the season. If the Niners can neutralize him the way other teams have, it will go along way. No team going into the postseason has played more than consecutive games than the 49ers have. If they can pull out a victory Sunday, the week off could be the best thing to happen to the Niners since the midseason acquisition of Sanders. A well-rested team will be more dangerous and the defensive line could return to imitating a shark frenzy like it did early in the season.

The Tennessee Titans can clinch a playoff spot this weekend with a road win over the Houston Texans. There are other permutations for them to get in if they lose, but that would put the Titans on a three-game skid entering the playoffs the following week, which no one would feel good about. But, the Titans could also head into the playoffs with a dubious distinction as they are tied with two other teams (Dolphins and Panthers) for surrendering a league-worst 56 sacks this season. However, the Titans have given up 56 sacks on just 427 pass attempts -- ranking dead last in the league in sack percentage -- for roughly one sack for every 7.6 pass attempts, whereas the Dolphins give up one sack per every 10 pass attempts and the Panthers every 10.4 attempts. The problem with the Titans surrendering a sack every 7.6 pass attempts is that they are a run-heavy team, running the ball approximately 47 percent of the time, which is more than the league average. The negative plays seem to compound their inability to overcome it that much more difficult.

But let's get away from the numbers for a minute. All negative plays put stress on an offense, whether those are penalties, tackles for loss or sacks. In last week's shootout against the New Orleans Saints that saw 66 total points on the scoreboard, the Titans struggled to match scores with the Saints despite jumping out to an early 14-3 lead. In fact, the Titans were zero of six on third-and-10-plus situations. Five sacks also contributed to the struggles, but rarely are sacks the lone responsibility of the offensive line. Let's examine one third-down situation when the Titans gave up a sack. It was third-and-1 from their own 36 with 3:50 to go in the second quarter, the Titans, who held a 14-3 lead, opted to pass the ball with star running back Derrick Henry on the sideline with a hamstring injury. (I'm sure if Mike Vrabel had to do this all over again, he would have demanded a QB sneak from Ryan Tannehill.) The Titans ran a pick in the middle of the field against the Saints' sticky man-to-man coverage. As Tannehill waited for the receiver to break free, linebacker Demario Davis rushed off the edge and sacked the QB for a 10-yard loss, ultimately forcing a punt. On the play, left tackle Taylor Lewan got stepped on, stumbled backward and fell, allowing Davis to easily get to Tannehill's blindside.

These plays stand out when reflecting back on a loss. Here's another.

On the series before, the Titans faced a third-and-10 from their own 16-yard line when they called a slide right protection, in which they were supposed to build a picket fence to trap anything coming on a blitz or stunt. On the backside away from Lewan, the Titans kept two tight ends in, but the Saints only rushed four players (including inside linebacker A.J. Klein) vs. the Titans' seven-man max pass protection. Klein started at Lewan and continued to his left. Lewan let Klein go because he thought he those two tight ends would seal the backside. Well, the tight ends got caught with tunnel vision and didn't see Klein come free. He ultimately sacked Tannehill.

This should never happen to a veteran group in a huge game this late in the season, yet these breakdowns continue to occur. Oddly enough, the Titans are 6-3 with Tannehill as the starting QB and average nearly 30 points per game during that stretch. None of that matters now. It's a one-game season to earn the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture. It will help getting their workhorse Henry back after a week of rest, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

But the offensive line, tight ends, running backs and the play-callers have to be better. That's the bottom line. If it's a slide protection, the tight ends MUST seal the backside. And third-and-1 cannot be a pass. And finally, keeping sacks and negative plays to a minimum is at a premium. Good teams do all of these things. If the Titans want to finish 9-7 for the fourth-straight year and have a chance to play spoiler in January, they need all facets of the offense to eliminate the plays that keep putting them in difficult situations. That starts with cleaning up pass protection.

Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.

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