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3 Areas Dallas Cowboys Need to Improve for the Playoffs

John Williams



2018 Rushing Title: Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley in Neck-and-Neck Race

It’s been a tumultuous season for the Dallas Cowboys. Through the first seven games of the season, they alternated wins and losses falling to the Washington Redskins just before the bye week to bring their record to 3-4. During the bye week, the Cowboys made the move to replace then Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander with Assistant Offensive Line Coach Marc Colombo. Then they pulled off the trade of the season sending their 2019 first round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. 

The Cooper deal was panned by much of the NFL community, but the Cowboys have struck gold with Cooper in the offense. That dude is always open. 

The excitement of the moves made during the bye week quickly wore off as the team fell to the Tennessee Titans 28-14 to drop to 3-5. It was a huge disappointment and seemingly took all the air out of Cowboys Nation.

Then, the unthinkable happened, the Cowboys went on a five game winning streak including wins over the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks. The five game winning streak briefly put them in the conversation as one of the NFC’s best.

The hype didn’t last long as the Cowboys were again beaten by an AFC South opponent. This time it was the Indianapolis Colts and this time it was a 23-0 shutout. It was an enormous letdown, but they bounced back with a solid win on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that they looked to be in control of throughout. 

Now, with the NFC East clinched and a wild card round home game with -- most likely -- the Seattle Seahawks, the Dallas Cowboys still have some things to improve.  

1. Red Zone Efficiency

This has been an area of struggle for the Cowboys for much of the season, though things were better in the red zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Dallas Cowboys were able to convert on both of their trips to the red zone in the win.

On their first drive of the game -- after a face mask penalty by Buccaneers Defensive Tackle Vita Vea wiped out a sack -- Dak Prescott took the read-option to the left and ran the ball into the end zone for the touchdown. It was a play that the Cowboys had become very adept at running, but one that a lot of teams have sat on this season, which has led to a lot of their red zone struggles.

The other thing that the Dallas Cowboys haven't been able to do inside the red zone is throw fades or back shoulder fades with much consistency. On their second red zone attempt during the third quarter, the Cowboys got the ball back at the Tampa Bay four yard line on a fumble recovery and return by Randy Gregory.

On the first play from scrimmage, Dak Prescott threw a fade to Wide Receiver Noah Brown, which was a catchable ball, but the coverage was really good and the ball fell incomplete. On the second and goal play, Prescott through a fade to the other side and Michael Gallup was able to beat his man off the line of scrimmage and create separation in the back corner of the end zone for the touchdown.

Dallas Cowboys on Twitter

GALLUP-ing in a Winter Wonderland ❄️ Snow stopping @michael13gallup with the TD! #DallasCowboys #TBvsDAL

It was a perfectly thrown ball by Dak Prescott that Gallup turned around and snatched out of the air with his hands. It was an encouraging sign as that is a necessary part of a red zone offense. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have to be able to throw some fades and back shoulder fades to the outside to get teams to back off of the run game or the middle of the field where the tight ends and Wide Receiver Cole Beasley work best.

Their two trips to the red zone were encouraging, but they have to continue to prove that they can score touchdowns there. The Dallas Cowboys are the only team in the playoff picture with a red zone conversion rate less than a 50%. Their 45.7% red zone rate ranks 30th in the NFL. only two teams are worse than the Cowboys in 2018; the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. In 2016, when the Dallas Cowboys went 13-3 and had the top seed in the NFC, they finished third in the NFL in red zone scoring at 66%.

For the Cowboys to make as deep a run, as we all hope they can, they're going to have to figure out how to turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Because the Cowboys most likely opponent in the first round, the Seahawks, score on 65.4% of the red zone opportunities.

Touchdowns win games. 

2. Third Down Defense

The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They're excellent at keeping teams from scoring points, allowing 19.3 points per game, which is fourth in the NFL. As we head into week 17, the Dallas Cowboys rank seventh in the NFL with a third down conversion rate of 41.9%. As a team, they've managed to still be a really good defense despite giving up a high percentage of third down conversions through 15 games.

They were better at getting off the field on third downs this week against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that ranks fourth in the NFL in third down conversion percentage. However, there's a difference between the quarterback play and the overall functionality of the offense they faced last Sunday and the one they'll face in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys will have to be better than they've been most of the season.

The Seahawks are middle of the pack in third down conversion percentage, but they're a more balanced team with a solid running game and an underrated passing attack led by Russell Wilson. Whoever is able to capitalize on third downs, the Cowboys or Seahawks, will tell the tale of the wild card matchup.

3. Play Action Passing Usage

Over the last four weeks, the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott have used play action passing on 17.3% of Dak Prescott's drop backs, per Pro Football Focus. That ranks 28th out of 36 quarterbacks who have had at least 10 play action drop back attempts weeks 13-16. In weeks 1-12 of the season, Dak Prescott used play action on 24.8% of his drop backs, which was good for 15th in the NFL over that period.

The Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have gone away from using play action in the offensive attack, and I'm not exactly sure why.

I know that they've had offensive line injuries that has had to change some of the scheme with Tyron Smith and Zack Martin out at different times over the last month and a half, but the lack of play action passing is startling.

Dak Prescott isn't a perfect quarterback, but one thing he's done well in his career is use play action effectively in the passing game. Whether it was a run-pass option (RPO) or a traditional play action, he has excellent ball skills that allow him to make the defense think run before letting the ball go.

The Dallas Cowboys will face a relentless pass rush when they face -- most likely -- the Seattle Seahawks in a week and a half, and using play action is a great way to keep the defense off balance. Given the way the Cowboys run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott, and opposing defenses' focus on the running game, their play action usage should be in the top 10 in the NFL.

Heading into the playoffs, the Cowboys have to figure out a way to get play action back into their scheme to get Dak Prescott doing the things that he does best.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

With what amounts to a tune up game this week against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys have an opportunity to go into the game to work on some things in particular. Let's hope they're able to find some answers for the things that plague them.

It's been too long since the Dallas Cowboys have had a deep playoff run and this team has the tools on both the offensive and defensive side of the football to make one happen this season. But, in order to do so, they'll have to improve in those three areas.

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could. Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.


Dallas Cowboys

LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys

Brian Martin



LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys

In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.

The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.

Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…

"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."

Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:

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The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.

Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.

If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).

As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.

Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?

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Dallas Cowboys

How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster

Jess Haynie



Michael Jackson, 49ers

Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.

While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.

The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.

Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.

So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.

In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.

But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.

Kris Richard

Dallas Cowboys DB Coach Kris Richard

Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.

When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.

No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.

We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.

That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.

This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.

But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.

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Game Notes

DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win

Kevin Brady



Kerry Hyder

Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.

Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.

As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.

Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.

Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.

A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.

Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.

"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli

Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.

Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.

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