It's been a difficult week for the Dallas Cowboys. Not only did they get crushed in last night's preseason game, but the news of Travis Frederick's nerve disease cast a dark cloud over everything.
The health of the offensive live is now the dominant issue in trying to project the final 53-man roster. Several questions have to be answered:
- Will Travis Frederick be put on injured reserve?
- Will Zack Martin be ready to play?
- How many extra bodies will the Cowboys need to keep, if any?
- Is Chaz Green an Eagles sleeper agent, sent here to destroy us?
The ripple effects of roster decisions are what make these projections so interesting. A few banged up offensive linemen could cost a defensive back or someone at any other, seemingly unrelated, position a job.
So where are we now? What's changed after this week's events?
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White
After the last three games you may not be too high on either of the Cowboys' backup QBs. I still contend that neither has had much opportunity to shine with poor play from the backup offensive linemen, but I can understand any concerns.
That said, Cooper Rush has not looked like the same guy from the 2017 preseason. If some veteran passers hit the open market after final cuts, could Dallas consider cutting one of their youngsters for more security on the QB depth chart?
If nothing else, the Cowboys may now be more motivated to just keep two guys. Thursday night's game could be critical for one of Rush or White to hang on to their roster spot and avoid the practice squad.
Running Back (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Darius Jackson,
Jamize Olawale (FB)
Every week Darius Jackson flashes what a weapon he could be on a few plays, plus he's been getting looks as a kick returner. That gives him added value over Bo Scarbrough, who doesn't offer anything on special teams.
As I said last week, I think Elliott, Smith, and even Olawale give you all of the goal line and short yardage thumpers you need. Scarbrough should make it to the practice squad, and if not I don't see it as any big loss given what you already have.
So, unless something happens with injuries, I'm feeling pretty good about this RB group for Week One.
Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup,
Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin
Changes: Removed Lance Lenoir
It'd be easy to call removing Lenoir a knee-jerk reaction after his rough preseason game. While it does factor in, this change is about more than just a few muffed punts.
Keeping six receivers is never guaranteed. You'd really need to feel good about all six guys, plus have clear roles for them. Even though he's had a strong showing before last night, Lenoir may not even be active on game days. He clearly won't be the return man, either.
As I said at the outset, Dallas may have to go long on the offensive line. So at this point, all things considered, I'm going to make Lenoir the fall guy for those issues.
Tight End (3)
Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz
Rico Gathers probably makes the team if not for the issues at other positions, but the math just doesn't work for him anymore. Dallas will hope he gets to the practice squad, but I don't think they'll lose much sleep at this point if someone claims him.
As much as some might be disappointed about the failed experiment, you have to remember what we were talking about with Gathers. Think about all the guys who don't make it to the NFL despite great college careers.
Rico didn't play football in college. He didn't play it in high school. You were just hoping that you could make a football player out of this great athlete, essentially cheating the normal process of how people get into the NFL.
It didn't work because it's not supposed to. The odds were never in his favor.
Offensive Tackle (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Cam Fleming
While he hasn't looked great at times this preseason, Fleming is still the clear swing tackle with no real competition for the job. It's unlikely anyone better will become available after final cuts, either.
What's encouraging here is that Tyron Smith and La'el Collins are healthier than last year, hopefully making the swing tackle a little of a concern. Given what's going on elsewhere with the offensive line, Dallas needs their tackles to be out there every snap if possible.
Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Connor Williams,
Joe Looney, Kadeem Edwards, Free Agent TBD
Changes: Added "Free Agent TBD"
I'm still on the fence about Frederick going to IR. I can easily see it happening, but I can also see Dallas wanting to wait in case he can come back sooner. If it swings just one game to have him out there as opposed to Joe Looney, that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
So right now, I'm projecting with the idea that Frederick stays on the 53 but inactive to start the year. In that case, Joe Looney will start. Dallas will get aggressive looking for a new backup guard/center, and they might sign two and cut Edwards.
Defensive End (6)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory,
Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Charles Tapper
While this may be one DE too many, all it takes is one injury to wish you still had somebody. None of these guys are just a body; all have some upside Dallas would hate to lose.
What we'll probably see is that one of these guys, most likely Charles Tapper, gets released once David Irving comes back from suspension. After four weeks, though, who knows how injuries may change the landscape.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Daniel Ross,
Changes: Removed Jihad Ward
Jihad Ward hasn't done much to justify a spot, but he's also new to Rod Marinelli's system. I think he'd get extra time if there weren't other issues, but injuries on the offensive line and at safety are going to cost him a spot.
As always, we're going to see a lot of rotation and plenty of guys getting snaps in different formations. Nobody from this DT group can really be called a clear starter, especially with Tyrone Crawford probably getting more looks as the 3-tech again.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch,
Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard
Free agent addition Joe Thomas is looking like a total steal. He may now be their first man off the bench, even ahead of the first-round rookie.
The Cowboys have as much LB depth as they've had in some time. While we'd certainly never want to be without Sean Lee, they are much more ready to deal with it now than in the past.
Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones, Anthony Brown,
Jourdan Lewis, Charvarius Ward
We're still waiting for a clear favorite to emerge for the final spot at CB. I'm sticking with Ward just because I've had no reason to bump him for someone else.
With Xavier Woods hurt and likely to miss Week One, the roster spot could come from corner. Dallas has kept just four guys in the past, and the top four right now are all healthy.
Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier,
Jeron Johnson, Tyree Robinson
Changes: Added Johnson, Robinson
Removed Marqueston Huff
Johnson and Robinson are just placeholders right now. Hopefully Dallas pulls off a deal for a certain safety from Seattle, but they should at least be active in looking at other team's cuts.
The Cowboys may not even keep a fifth guy, regardless of Woods' status. They can always play Byron Jones at safety if another injury happens. They might want to use that roster spot at another position.
Special Teams (3)
Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur
We've only gotten to see Dan Bailey attempt one field goal this preseason, so some of the questions from last year still linger. But the Cowboys appear confident enough to keep him shelved in these games, which seems like a good sign.
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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