As many of those of you who read my articles will know, I believe the Cowboys (and us fans) have overestimated the strengths of the team and that the “stars” have underplayed their capabilities. However, I believe the most damaging thing in this six-game losing streak has been their struggle to make adjustments in personnel, game plans, and fundamental approach.
While this is especially true of in-game adjustments, there has also been a lack of innovation and imagination in using the personnel in the best way.
There is a rigidity within the coaching staff that causes them to want to show that their way will work just fine. In normal circumstances, this stubbornness makes sense. But when you are in a losing streak like this, you have to have flexibility and creativity to put players in their best position, regardless of egos, consequences, or perceptions. With this in mind, I want to make a suggestions on how the Boys could tweak the personnel for the Bucs game.
But before we get into the adjustments that the Cowboys could make, let’s take a quick look at why the adjustments are necessary and how the ‘Boys should attack the Bucs. Once we understand these two things, then we can determine what personnel should play and why.
Why Things Must Change Right Now
In business, one of the hardest things I have found to manage is the need to adjust to new things without losing your focus or wasting time on every new opportunity. In any business, possessing laser focus is the key. You have to stay on point, never wavering from your key strengths and services. You probably have heard it before: “Be who you are and be excellent at what you do.” You can't do that when you begin to chase every new shiny idea or fad.
The quickest way to fail is to get distracted. You will waste time, energy, and generally get bad results.
But on the other hand, you have to listen to what the market wants. When the market changes, so should you. You have to be flexible and make adjustments as opportunities materialize. In every company I owned, I have started in one direction but by the time we sold, we were doing something else (similar, but not the same). So you have to grab opportunities and look for new ideas to help you grow quickly. In essence you have to be willing to change.
So how do you balance adjusting to the market and staying on point with your process and message? How can you be adaptive and flexible and still be focused? It's the toughest question you can face in business. You have to get it right to succeed. This is the difficulty that the Boys face.
JG has a process, a plan, and he does not deviate. This is great when positive progress is being made. But what about when things are not going well. Do you stay on point and make your way through? Generally I would say yes, that is exactly what is needed. But by doing this, you tend to stick too long with personnel/players and strategies that are not performing. This unyielding focus can make you great in the long run, but it can also make you bad at adjusting in the short term.
For any coach or business owner out there, you know the main key to your success is having great players/staff, who buy into the objective/goal, who understand their role, and are put into the best position for them to influence the outcome.
Sounds so simple, yet it is so difficult. You have to constantly ask if you have the right person in the right seat, and if you're giving them the tools to succeed. Sometimes you have to admit that you didn't put the right person in a seat. Sometimes you have to switch people to new roles to better utilize their strengths. To optimize the company’s performance, you must play to the teams - and individual players - strengths rather than try to coach them to overcome weaknesses.
The Cowboys are in the same position. You don’t need to wait for a bye week or injury to make changes. Just because you gave someone the start doesn’t mean you need to continue starting them. It also means that the coaches may need to admit that they have tried putting players in roles that they are not succeeding in. Unfortunately, that is why some of these changes are needed. The coaching staff put some players in positions that they appeared well suited for, but the players are not living up to that expectation.
Now, before we get into the adjustments, let’s look at how we need to attack the Bucs.
Strategy In Week 10
The Bucs will play a cover 2 defense and try to create turnovers. Much like the Cowboys, they want to be conservative on defense, rushing four and keeping two deep safeties. Until the offense is successful with the run game and short passes forcing them out of their cover 2 zone. So when Tampa is in their Tampa 2, the Cowboys will need to run effectively.
They cannot let the Bucs get away with playing two deep safeties. Once the strong safety has to play in the box, and assuming the Bucs will roll a safety to the Dez side, it should also open up the short middle of the field, inside out routes and fly routes opposite Dez’s side. So specific routes that will be effective against the Bucs are slants to the weak side, drags from strong side to weak, TE seams, RB flats (working inside out), and double TEs with one TE on a seam and the second dragging underneath the seam. A 15-yard hook/drag underneath a deep flag is also a good route combination. You just need to make sure to force the safety deep. If the corners are playing off coverage, receiver screens are effective as well because the corners are deeper.
So to summarize, the Cowboys need to play a patient game of short routes, screens and running the ball. If, or hopefully when, the Bucs drop a safety into the box, you have to take your shots downfield. Usually a fly route, with a post on the backside to keep the single-high safety in the middle of the field.
The Cowboys must make big plays against these corners when given the opportunity. Matt Cassel must see the safety in the box and audible to the deep route.
On defense, the Boys will need to put pressure on the rookie by any means necessary. He will throw picks when rattled. He will try to fit throws into tight quarters. This should give the ‘Boys opportunities to make plays. So the Cowboys should play exactly how the Bucs will play. They should have two deep safeties with corners playing up tight to the line. Take out the short passes and screens. Physical man coverage is the key. This is especially true out of the slot where you will need a physical and quick slot corner. If the Cowboys are able to keep two safeties back, they will get picks.
Jamison will take chances with his throws. But to stay back they will need to stop the run first, then get pressure from their front four. Not a complex game plan at all. It just needs to be implemented effectively.
So with these factors in mind, let’s look at some personnel changes that could help.
1) Hardy & Gregory to left DE, Lawrence & Mincey to right DE.
Lawrence has shown no pass rush ability from the left side and he is giving up the edge too often on run plays. On the left side, you need a strong run defender because the One is inside in the 1 gap. By switching sides, Lawrence will have help on the strong side on run downs. Also, he showed more rush ability for the right side last year than he has all year on the left side. This will also allow Mincey to play on the right side too, and he can play on early downs and help set the edge against the run.
Meanwhile, Hardy has the strength to play the left side and he has the speed to still rush against the bigger offensive right tackles. This will allow Gregory to match his speed more with the bigger right tackles as well. By switching sides, Hardy & Gregory will have more pass rush success, Lawrence should have more success, and the run game should be better on both sides with Hardy and Mincey playing the first downs.
2) Mincey to play more three technique, Crawford to play more one technique.
Mincey should be used on the right DE on first downs (Lawrence plays second and third) and should play the three technique on pass downs. Mincey has the strength to play the run but he has a quick burst that should allow him to be effective in the three technique. Likewise, Crawford has the strength to play the one technique on second and third down & long situations. This will give Hayden more plays off to keep him from being exhausted in the fourth quarter. This should also improve the inside pass rush on longer downs.
3) Rotate Gachkar in with McClain.
One of the problems the Cowboys had in the Eagles game (and the Giants, Saints and Falcons) was the defense was exhausted in the fourth quarter and overtime. McClain was just gassed. To help keep him fresh, I think the Boys could play Gachkar in the middle for McClain 15 to 20 plays. This should help to have McClain fresh in the fourth if they need him to come up with a big stop.
4) Play Damien Wilson as LB in Nickel and Dime packages.
There are two reasons for this. First, he is the quickest LB the Boys have with Lee out. The Boys are struggling to cover the RBs coming out of the backfield. Wilson is probably the best equipped to accomplish this. Yes, he had a blown coverage in the Saints game, but that was on a play where he was running in and confused. He should be better prepared now.
The second reason for him playing is that he is perhaps the best edge rusher of all the LBs. The Cowboys have to get four or five sacks in this game, and he could provide one or even two with well-timed blitzes.
5) Byron Jones to free safety.
JJ Wilcox is not giving the Boys anything. He is not good in coverage, he is not helping on deep balls, he is terrible at taking angles. He is a non-factor. A negative factor in fact. By playing Jones at free safety you could get a playmaker that could possibly help get some turnovers. Jones would also be better at being the last line of defense and he can cover more ground.
6) Patmon and White to slot
Since Tampa will not have a great TE playing in this game, you could play White on the bigger TE. White’s size will allow him to play the TE. He would still be able to blitz from the slot. Tampa plays a quick, smart slot receiver. This is a bad matchup for Jones, but a perfect fit for Patmon. Patmon can get up and play aggressively on the slot.
Overall, this is a much more effective line-up for the Boys.
7) Whitehead to third down running back
Since the Bucs will play two deep, the Boys will need to be patient but also get big plays from short passes. Think what Dunbar gave the Boys in the first couple of games. You need someone who can go one on one against the LBs and turn a 5-yard pass into a twenty-five-yard pass. Whitehead gives you this dynamic.
He can work on inside out routes from the backfield and beat LBs consistently. He can turn a small play into a large game. All the Boys will need is one or two of these to change field position and set up scores.
This is how I would tweak the lineup to try to get the right player in the right position to succeed. It is still up to the players to execute, but this should allow them the opportunity. It is time to adjust for the short term, but still keep the process in place for the long run.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Wide Receiver
The biggest story of the Cowboys' 2018 season was the mid-season arrival of Amari Cooper and the way it turned Dallas into a playoff-bound contender. Wide receiver remains a key component of the team this year, and today we'll look at how the talent stacks up with only a week to go before 2019 training camp.
Cooper is back and all signs point to him getting a long-term contract in the near future. He is the undisputed number-one receiver and has reestablished himself as one of the better one in the NFL after a brief downtime in Oakland.
Last year's third-round pick, Michael Gallup, rose to the number-two spot throughout last year and eventually was beating Cole Beasley in targets by the playoffs. There are reasonably high hopes for his continued development; Dallas could boast one of the best WR tandems in football by the end of 2019.
With the aforementioned Beasley bolting for Buffalo in free agency, the Cowboys made one of their splashier signings in veteran Randall Cobb to replace him. Cobb has struggled with injuries his last few years in Green Bay, but he's still just 28 and has produced at a higher level than Cole ever did.
If Randall's healthy, he brings more security to the position as a player who can step into a starting role if needed. But ideally, if Cooper and Gallup hold their spots down, Cobb will be a major threat as the slot receiver. He has real potential to upgrade that spot from Beasley, which isn't a knock on Cole but the reality of Cobb's talent.
Here is our projected depth chart for the Cowboys' WR position in 2019. We're going to treat the top three receivers as starters, since WR3 plays the majority of offensive snaps in the modern NFL.
- Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb
- Allen Hurns, Noah Brown, Tavon Austin
- Cedrick Wilson, Devin Smith, Lance Lenoir
- Jalen Guyton, Reggie Davis, Jon'Vea Johnson
As with most of the Dallas roster in 2019, we have a firm grip on who the starters are. But there's a lot of competition for the bottom of the depth chart, and WR exemplifies that as well as any position on the team.
One guy who feels like a lock is Noah Brown, the 2017 7th-round pick who has proven himself a valuable special teams player with the potential for more. Brown's physical receiving style has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant in his limited playing time, and he's even shown enough power to be deployed as a small tight end in some situations.
On paper, veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin would round out the WR depth chart. Hurns has the most experience as a former starting WR and offers security if Cooper or Gallup should go down. Austin has versatility, rare speed, and the special teams work as a return specialist to justify his presence.
But Hurns also has a $6.25 million cap hit that Dallas can shed $5 million of if he's released. And Tavon's value may take a big hit if rookie RB Tony Pollard steals his reps as the offensive gadget player and in the return game.
These veterans will have to fight for their spots. A prospect like Cedrick Wilson, who the team was high on in 2018 as a rookie but lost to injury, could easily challenge them. There's also Lance Lenoir, who has return ability and has been with the team for two seasons.
Undrafted rookie Jon'Vea Johnson was one of the buzz names coming out of mini-camps and OTAs. If the praise continues now, Johnson could easily push his way onto the bottom of the roster. He appears to be a favorite of Cowboys WR Coach Sanjay Lal.
One more guy to watch is Devin Smith. He was a 2nd-round pick of the Jets in 2015 but has struggled with knee injuries the last few years. Dallas signed him last January as a reclamation project, and clearly there's something there that once made him a Day 2 pick.
This is a loaded group at WR in 2019, which is great for the Cowboys and unfortunate for those who deserve a roster spot but won't find one. Will the veterans like Hurns and Austin fight off the young guys, or will someone like Johnson be the next undrafted rookie to succeed in Dallas?
~ ~ ~
OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?
There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.
On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.
It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.
In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.
In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.
In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.
No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.
Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.
Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.
Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.
No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.
Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.
If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.
One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.
In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.
With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.
The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.
Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?
There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.
Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.
Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.
As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.
The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.
But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.
There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.
Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.
However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.
Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.
Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.
Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.
DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.
I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.
But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.
In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.
In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.
That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.
Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.
But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.
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