The Dallas Cowboys are going to need better results over the rest of the 2019 season than they’ve had in the first seven games. While a 4-3 record and first place in the NFC East aren’t bad, Dallas has fallen behind in the race for top seeding in the playoffs and home field advantage. They will need a major win streak to catch up, which mean some key players are going to need to step up their play following the bye week.
Nobody has played perfect football; your feelings about which players need to improve their play are probably going to differ some from mine. But I look at this from two perspectives:
- Which players have proven the ability to play better than they currently are?
- Which players’ positions/roles could have the biggest degree of impact?
Given that first criteria, I’m not putting someone on this list like Jeff Heath. While it would be great for one of our starting safeties to contribute more, I think most would agree that Heath has maxed out his potential and is giving you the best he has. The only way that situation improves is with a change of personnel.
There are also players who I’d love to see more from, such as TE Blake Jarwin or CB Jourdan Lewis, but right now they’re limited by their place on the depth chart. They can only take advantage of the limited opportunities they’re given.
But there are other spots on the roster where I see room for improvement from the players currently holding down major roles. Therefore, here are the five guys I most want to see increased quality and/or production from when business resumes in Week 9.
LBs Jaylon Smith & Leighton Vander Esch
While the young duo at linebacker are the top-two tacklers on defense statistically, their overall level of impact hasn’t been the same as last year. We’re not seeing them disrupting in the backfield or shutting down plays for short yardage as we enjoyed in 2018.
One thing I’m especially missing are the big plays as pass defenders. Vander Esch had two interceptions and seven deflections as a rookie but has only broken up two passes so far this year with no picks. Teams respecting him more is certainly a factor, but it would be nice to see Leighton having more of a game-changing impact.
Jaylon has two forced fumbles this year and has been stepping it up lately but got off to a slow start. Hopefully he can keep the momentum going.
The Cowboys’ defensive scheme is predicated on play-making from the linebackers. The secondary plays more preventative than aggressive to avoid giving up long touchdowns; turnovers will hopefully come from the ability of the athletic, versatile guys in the middle of the field.
If Dallas is going to compete for Super Bowl this year then, simply put, they need more from Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. This type of defense has historically worked best, and brought in championships, when guys like Brian Urlacher and Derrick Brooks have been standout players.
Jaylon and Leighton displayed that kind of potential last year. Let’s hope they get back to that consistent play-making in the weeks to come.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
It’s been a low year so far for Tank in terms of his sacks. With only 3.5 sacks after seven games, Lawrence is in danger of not hitting double digits for the first time in three years.
To be fair to DeMarcus, he’s been facing more double teams so far this year than most NFL pass rushers. His presence has helped allow teammate Robert Quinn to flourish since his Week 3 debut; Quinn is generally only having to beat one man to get to the quarterback.
But in the Cowboys’ last game against the Eagles we saw that Lawrence can still make some noise on his own. His impact early in the game was tremendous, and he was clearly motivated to make Coach Doug Pederson eat his words
If Pederson’s guarantee helped light a fire under Tank that week, it leads to the question of why he isn’t playing that same way the rest of the way. Hopefully, that fire keeps burning as business resumes in Week 9.
Dallas’ trade for Michael Bennett, coupled with Quinn’s standout play so far this year, should help Tank break loose in the second half of 2019. And if teams keep keying on the Cowboys’ top defensive lineman, ideally it will allow Quinn, Bennett, and others to take advantage.
Either way, the Cowboys’ pass rush should be more effective in the weeks ahead.
WR Michael Gallup
This may seem harsh given Gallup’s overall performance this year, but he currently leads the team with six drops despite having missed two games. If Michael is going to truly break out this season, he can’t carry let drops become part of his brand.
The guy who Gallup replaced in Dallas, Terrance Williams, could never shake the bad hands label. He made some brilliant catches at times and was an exceptional run blocker, but his drops and other mental errors were too many to overcome.
Nobody wants Gallup to be thought of the way Terrance was. But unfortunately, the bad plays stick in memories way more than the good ones.
You can do a lot of good on the field but have that one bobbled catch which turns into an interception. That single turnover can erase all the good; Michael Gallup needs to get the drops under control to protect his reputation and help avoid game-changing mistakes.
CB Chidobe Awuzie
It’s Year 3 for the former second-round draft pick and time for Awuzie to settle into his long-term role. We’ve seen flashes of the kind of player that Chido can be, but also still see him getting beaten or flagged for penalties too often.
Awuzie gets targeted a lot; opposing teams are less likely to challenge Pro Bowl teammate Byron Jones. And because Dallas dedicates their corners to specific spots on the field, rather than having them follow assigned receivers, Chido can find himself having to guard the opponents’ top WR at times. We saw that in Week 4 against the Saints, with Awuzie being consistently outmatched trying to defend Michael Thomas.
Dallas has been flagged four times so far for defensive pass interference and three of those belong to Awuzie. And even if you think of a call that probably shouldn’t have made, there’s also likely one out there that the referees missed.
Simply put, Chidobe Awuzie needs to start looking like a fixture at starting CB instead of a still-developing prospect. Opposing offenses needs less incentive to throw in his direction, which will cause quarterbacks to hesitate a little more and perhaps allow our pass rushes more chances to make a play.