The Cowboys finished their second week of the preseason with a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Between player performances and some injury news, we have some new things to consider in our roster projection for 2018.
Like last week against the 49ers, Dallas dominated the first half. The starters look ready to contend against any team in the NFL.
But depth is now looking like an issue. Some guys have been hurt and could miss the start of the regular season, and the players behind them are why the Cowboys have now lost two games they led at halftime.
How did these things impact the projected 53-man roster?
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White
After two unproductive preseason games, Mike White is starting to draw some criticism and questions a bout his job security. As I've mentioned many times, the Cowboys have often kept just two two quarterbacks on the roster to save a spot for another position.
But when you consider how bad the offensive line play has been when White's in the game, you have to consider what opportunity he really has to show anything. We all saw what Chaz Green was doing out there, to the point that he finally got benched.
Just remember how Dak Prescott looked in Atlanta last year when he was running for his life. You've seen it from some of the game's best QBs. If it can happen them, it can certainly happen to a fifth-round rookie playing in his second preseason game.
Dallas didn't spend that pick on White lightly. They're not going to cut him, and lose his four-year rookie contract, without being truly sure he has no value. I think it's too soon to know that, and especially given what's been going on around him.
Running Back (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Darius Jackson,
Jamize Olawale (FB)
Changes: Added Jackson, Removed Bo Scarbrough
Jackson was one of the highlights of the last game, showing his ability to make things happen even in limited space. It also showed why he may give the team more use than Bo Scarbrough would.
Scarbrough is a thumper, but is he really going to get playing time over Ezekiel Elliott AND Rod Smith? Is he going to take goal-line carries away from both of those guys, who also play with plenty of power?
Darius, on the other hand, has the speed to take one carry to the house. And with the Cowboys clearly trying to add more juice to the offense this year, Jackson fits that agenda.
Remember, Dallas spent a sixth-round pick on Jackson in 2016. That's a round higher than when they took Scarbrough this year. Jackson was on the roster until December of that year, when he was waived to make room for Darren McFadden.
The team liked Darius to bring him back this season. He provides a more explosive element and, I think, more overall value than Scarbrough. Unless there's some tremendous different in blocking ability or special teams play, I think he'll hang around.
Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup,
Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin, Lance Lenoir
Changes: Added Williams, Removed Deonte Thompson
I'm convinced that one of either Terrance Williams or Deonte Thompson won't make the roster, thanks largely to the rise of Lance Lenoir. At this point, I'm shifting to it being Thompson.
Terrance reminded us of his value on Saturday night. This is his third year playing with Dak Prescott, and that showed in the redzone scramble as Williams got open and gave Dak somewhere to put the ball. Plus, his contract remains a tough cut with $7.25 million in dead money.
Dallas brought Thompson in to be a speedy vertical threat, but they now have that in Tavon Austin and perhaps Lenoir. They also get special teams value out of Lenoir that the veteran Thompson doesn't offer.
The bottom of the depth chart generally comes down to special teams, but also long-term value. With Deonte being 29, he doesn't offer either. And with only a minimal veteran contract, he's much easier to cut than Terrance.
Tight End (3)
Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz
Changes: Removed Rico Gathers
Rico Gathers is going to keep doing things that make you do a double-take. He has so much raw athleticism for a player of his size. But ultimately, he doesn't do enough of the little things.
When you see the way a guy like Blake Jarwin has come in a leapfrogged the depth chart, you get why Dallas may be ready to give up on Gathers. Jarwin was an undrafted free agent but he's developed himself into a guy the Cowboys are comfortable with as a starter. Rico in his third year and hasn't had much growth.
Sure, you'd like to have Rico out there as a redzone target. But he has to do enough things to actually be on the active 46, let alone the 53-man roster. At this point, there's just no indication that he's there.
Offensive Tackle (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Cam Fleming,
Fleming has had ups and downs throughout camp and preseason, but he's still a massive upgrade as the swing tackle from Chaz Green last year.
This trio seems fairly locked in. Dallas will likely keep additional depth in the interior line given the recent injury scares with Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. With both Tyron and Collins in seemingly great health, they can roll with just the swing tackle for now.
Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Connor Williams,
Joe Looney, Kadeem Edwards
Changes: Removed Marcus Martin
Dallas should have a much better idea of Martin's Week One availability by finals cuts. If he can't go, they will probably have to keep an extra guy here while Joe Looney gets the start.
Kadeem Edwards is the kind of guy who probably makes it past final cuts but could easily be gone once Dallas starts looking at new free agents from around the league. He's the best option for now, but that can change once all these other teams start releasing players.
Similarly, if Dallas decides to keep an extra lineman because of health concerns, it will probably come from other team's cuts. I can't fathom that Chaz Green makes the team again after what we've seen the last two weeks.
Defensive End (6)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory,
Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Charles Tapper
The only guy I'm not sure about here is Tapper, who may be one pass rusher too many. With Randy Gregory on the way back and Dorance Armstrong being one of the standouts of training camp, they may not have need for a sixth guy.
Tapper's roster spot could easily go back to the offense, perhaps for that extra offensive lineman we talked about. It could also be how they hang on to Rico Gathers.
Or, as we'll get into now, it could go to keeping another defensive tackle.
Defensive Tackle (5)
Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Daniel Ross,
Brian Price, Jihad Ward
Changes: Added Collins, Ross. Removed Datone Jones
With Maliek Collins back from PUP and Daniel Ross moving up the depth chart, a tough cut is coming. Right now, I'm dropping the axe on Datone Jones.
For one, we have yet to hear the extent of Jones' knee injury. Doesn't sound like it's serious, but it could cost him valuable practice reps and preseason game time. That may be all it takes.
Datone has value as he can play both inside and outside, but Dallas already has that in several other players. He's also 28 years old, so there isn't much upside there compared to the majority of their linemen.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch,
Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard
The confidence in this group just keep growing, doesn't it? Jaylon Smith looks like everything we'd dreamed, and the depth is also showing up in preseason.
Joe Thomas nearly had his second interception of the preseason and appears to be a real steal from our free agency additions. Damien Wilson is still running with the starters and that could be the case in Week One, too.
With none of the teams other prospects really showing much so far in preseason, this six feels locked in. Barring injury, I wouldn't expect any changes over the next two weeks.
Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones, Anthony Brown,
Jourdan Lewis, Charvarious Ward
The only real question here is who is that fifth corner. I went with Ward last week and nobody really emerged in the last game to make me think differently. Still a lot that could happen in the next few weeks, though.
I do want to take a minute to discuss Jourdan Lewis. It's hard to say what's wrong with him right now, but he strikes me as a guy who's letting discouragement take him in the wrong direction.
Dallas may want to consider finding a trade partner. It was just a year ago that some saw Lewis as a first-round talent and he only dropped because of a pending legal issue. Might be a good time to get something for him while you still can.
Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier,
We don't know if Xavier Woods will play in Week One according to the most recent updates about his hamstring injury. That keeps the safety position, and a certain trade possibility with the Seahawks, in the spotlight.
Another option just became available as the Bengals released veteran George Iloka. He was a college teammate of Tyrone Crawford at Boise St. and has been playing in a similar scheme to what Dallas runs.
Woods' injury doesn't appear severe enough that it will put him on IR, even temporarily. Dallas might even be okay with starting Heath and Frazier for a week or two.
But if they were already looking at Earl Thomas, they just got a lot more motivated.
Special Teams (3)
Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur
We finally got to see Bailey kick a field goal. That was nice.
Chris Jones also showed us why he's one of the best with that coffin corner punt. Having this trio of special teamers is one of the great luxuries you can ask for as a football team.
Do Or Die: Chidobe Awuzie Must Improve Sunday, Or Cowboys Season Could End
Coming into the season there was a lot of hype surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' cornerbacks. With Byron Jones moving from safety full time, and now second year player Chidobe Awuzie playing opposite Jones after a promising rookie season, there was a lot for Cowboys fans to be excited about.
Through the first 10 weeks of the year, though, only one of those two has maintained fans' excitement. While Byron Jones has been arguably the best cornerback in all of football, Chidobe Awuzie has been damn-near an automatic completion when thrown at.
Awuzie has a -5.8 coverage rating this season, 65th among cornerbacks in the NFL. Coverage rating is a metric which factors in how often a cornerback is targeted as well as how many passes they've defensed per target. Quarterbacks also have a 116.6 passer rating when targeting Awuzie, compared to just 64.5 when targeting Byron Jones. For comparisons sake, Jones' coverage rating is a +45! So you can see why "cornerback opposite of Jones" is becoming a need for the Cowboys.
What's perplexing about Awuzie's season, though, is that he is only giving up an average 0.95 yards of separation, 27th in the league (courtesy of playerprofiler.com). So while Awuzie is playing relatively sticky coverage, he's still being targeted often, and he's still allowing completions way too often.
This week, Chidobe Awuzie will be tested once again, this time by the dynamic passing game of the Atlanta Falcons. The match-up many fans are focusing on is that between Byron Jones and Julio Jones, but how Awuzie does against Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu may play a bigger factor in the result.
Both Ridley and Sanu are solid supporting receivers, and considering how much attention the defense typically has to pay to Julio Jones, they tend to get man coverage often. This allows for a precise route runner like Ridley to take advantage of opportunities, and come away with the types of big plays we've seen from him this year.
When matched up with either of these weapons, Awuzie will need to continue to stay close, but play and defense the ball better. He must continue to make it hard on these receivers and force them into contested catches, but hopefully he can improve on his play when the ball gets to the catch point.
Sunday will be another big test for the Cowboys' young defense. And as well as they have played most weeks, this game has the potential to be a season ender if certain guys do not step up. One of those guys who will certainly play a key role in influencing the result in Chidobe Awuzie.
Cowboys Defense Faces Tough Matchup vs Falcons Passing Attack
When you're a 4-5 team in the NFL with preseason expectations of making the playoffs, the last half of the season has a lot of of must-win games. This week is no different. The Dallas Cowboys face another 4-5 team in the Atlanta Falcons who is also looking to keep their playoff hopes alive. Both teams are still in the hunt, but have slightly different paths to get there. The Dallas Cowboys would probably have to win the NFC East to make the playoffs with the Falcons only real chance coming via the wild card. The New Orleans Saints look to be the kings of the NFC South this season.
In order to stay in the hunt, the Dallas Cowboys are going to need a huge defensive effort against a fierce Atlanta Falcons passing game. Through the first nine games, the Cowboys have provided reason for optimism that they can slow down Matt Ryan and company, but they've also had some porous efforts this season.
The front seven of the defense has played pretty well through the first nine games of the season and Byron Jones has been one of the best corner backs in the league. They've had problems on the left sde of the defense with Chidobe Awuzie and with the safeties.
The Cowboys will face a really difficult challenge as they travel to face the Atlanta Falcons passing game led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Matt Ryan is in the top five in most passing categories including yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage, and leads the league in passing yards per game. In yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and air yards per attempt, Matt Ryan is sixth in the NFL.
As you can see from the chart above provided by Next Gen Stats and NFL.com, Matt Ryan has been average to better than average throwing to every area of the field this season. Particularly troubling is what he's doing when he's throwing to his right, which happens to be the side of the field occupied by Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie is allowing a passer rating of 129.7 this season, which is the 15th worst number in the NFL among corners who have played a minimum of 92 coverage snaps.
What's potentially more troubling than how efficient Matt Ryan's been throwing to Awuzie's side of the field is the fact that Julio Jones will play all over the formation and can beat you in every area of the field.
The chances are high that we'll see Awuzie lined up against Julio Jones on several occasions on Sunday. Pray for Chido, y'all.
Jones has only scored two touchdowns this year, but through nine games, he's already over 1,000 yards receiving, which is leading the NFL. Julio is fourth in the NFL in receptions and is averaging more than 15 yards per catch. He's third in the NFL in yards per route run at 2.99 sitting behind only Michael Thomas and Albert Wilson among players with at least 20 targets on the season.
From Jones' chart against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week six, you can see that they lined him up all over the formation and they ran him on a large variety of routes to a large variety of depths. Julio Jones is one of the best route runners in the NFL, which is scary considering he provides huge size and athleticism to go with it.
As good as he's been this season, the secondary receivers for the Falcons -- Calvin Ridley, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper -- have also played well. Each of them has more than 400 yards receiving on the season. To put that in perspective, Cole Beasley leads the Dallas Cowboys in receiving yards at 403. Each of the Falcons' top four targets have more receiving yards than Beasley does.
Not sure if that speaks of how good the Falcons passing game has been or how bad the Cowboys passing game has been.
The Cowboys will be facing the player that fans wanted the team to select instead of Leighton Vander Esch at 19th overall; Calvin Ridley. Ridley's been excellent this season with 500 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions. He's averaging 13.2 yards per reception. Ridley's second on the Falcons in receptions for first downs and Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 138.9 when targeting Ridley.
Austin Hooper doesn't get the same publicity that Jones and Ridley do, but he's been effective this season as well. Hooper is second on the Falcons in receptions with 46, which is the fourth most among tight ends in the NFL. Hooper will test Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch in the middle of the field as well as Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath down the seem.
Mohammed Sanu will be the matchup to watch for Anthony Brown in the slot. Though Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones will run routes from there on occasion, Sanu is the primary slot receiver. He ranks 22nd in the NFL in receptions and yards from the slot. Of his 45 targets, 33 have come while in the slot and 25 of his 34 receptions. When Matt Ryan throws Sanu's way, he's got a passer rating of 125.8.
And if all that wasn't bad enough, you have the Dallas Cowboys defense as one of the worst in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. The Atlanta Falcons are second in the NFL at getting off the field on third down.
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The Dallas Cowboys are likely going to give up some long drives to the Falcons, and that's ok. What they don't want to do is give up big plays to the Falcons passing attack. The Cowboys rank sixth in the NFL in red zone defense allowing teams to score on only 48.1% of their trips inside the 20 yard line. The Falcons are seventh in the league at scoring in the red zone, but have had their issues scoring touchdowns when getting inside the 20. If the Cowboys can hold them to three instead of seven, I'll count it as a successful drive for the defense.
The Dallas Cowboys defense is playing really well this season and it ranks in the top 10 in most team defensive categories. However, if they have a weakness it's been in their pass defense, primarily Awuzie and the safeties. If they want to win this game and continue to get themselves back into the playoff picture, they're going to need better performances from their defensive backs not named Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and to a lesser extent Xavier Woods.
Facing the Atlanta Falcons prolific passing attack is a huge test for this defense and one that could define the rest of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 season.
Cowboys’ Revenge Against Atlanta Hinges on These 3 Key Matchups
With their seasons hanging in the balance, the Dallas Cowboys (4-5) and the Atlanta Falcons (4-5) know all too well the importance of this matchup. The Cowboys however might have a little extra incentive to win this game, revenge. The Falcons absolutely throttled them in 2017, but Dallas is looking to turn the tables on them this year.
Playing in hostile territory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn't the ideal place to secure a victory, but I believe the Dallas Cowboys have a excellent shot at coming out of this contest with a "W". This time around the Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith at their disposal and they should pay huge dividends. Having these two players in the lineup will certainly factor into the outcome of the game, but there are other matchups worth keeping an eye on as well.
Here are the three matchups I believe will decide the outcome of this game:
Amari Cooper vs. Falcons' Secondary
If the Atlanta Falcons secondary continues to play the way they've played for the majority of the 2018 season, the Dallas Cowboys should be able to find quite a bit of success in the passing game. That's why I'm expecting Quarterback Dak Prescott and his receivers to have a big game, especially Amari Cooper.
The Falcons are surprisingly giving up 294.4 passing yards a game, which happens to be third worst in the NFL. But what's more surprising is they are also the worst at defending their opponents best receiver, ranking 30th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). That's why I think Amari Cooper could end up having his best game to date in a Cowboys uniform.
Cooper's ability to threaten an opponent's defense all over the field has already made the Cowboys offense better and that should continue to improve as his bond with Prescott develops. He has already become one of the most highly targeted WRs in the NFL since coming to Dallas and that is not only helping improve their passing game, but the running game as well.
Ezekiel Elliott vs. Falcons' Run Defense
As much as I'm excited about the damage Amari Cooper could do to the Falcons secondary, I'm even more excited about how dominate Ezekiel Elliott can be against Atlanta's defensive front. A lot of that has to do with the way both of these teams played in these areas a week ago, and it's a matchup that heavily favors the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are coming off their best rushing attack of the 2018 season. The offensive line completely manhandled the Philadelphia Eagles top ranked run defense last week, allowing Zeke to rush for 150+ yards. We could see a repeat performance, especially with the way the Falcons failed to stop the run last week against the Cleveland Browns.
Rookie Running Back Nick Chubb had a career day against the Falcons a week ago, amassing 176 yards and a touchdown on the ground and another 33 yards and a touchdown through the air. If that's an indication of what we can expect from Atlanta's run defense, Zeke should have a huge game. Controlling the clock with the running game would more than likely secure a much-needed victory.
Cowboys' Defense vs. Falcons' 3rd-down Offense
As good as a Dallas Cowboys defense has been this season, they have really struggled to get opposing offenses off the field on third down. In fact, they're currently the fourth worst third-down defense in the league, allowing offenses to convert a first down 44.07% of the time. That's not good, especially if you factor in that the Falcons convert 51.26% of their third downs, ranking second in the NFL.
The matchup between the Cowboys defense and the Falcons third-down offense could end up being the most important. Dallas absolutely have to find a way to get Matt Ryan and his offense off the field and the ball back in the hands of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. They can't allow Atlanta to get out to an early lead, because they're not a team who's built to come from behind.
Hopefully the Cowboys can capitalize on the Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott match ups (previously mentioned), that way they're play on third-down becomes less of a factor. But if it ends up being a close game, they will without a doubt have to improve their third-down defensive efficiency.
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