The Dallas Cowboys dominant win last Sunday against the rival New York Giants included a seemingly improved pass rush. Considered the team's biggest weakness for the last several seasons, pass rushing was a focal point of the Cowboys offseason and will be heavily scrutinized throughout 2017.
Like most of you, I was elated to see the Cowboys take Eli Manning to the ground three times in last Sunday's game. I was especially thrilled to see those sacks come from DeMarcus Lawrence and Charles Tapper, two guys who joined the team with a lot of hype and have been held back by health issues.
Three sacks is a great number. If the Cowboys can average three sacks per game then that would give them 48 total for the year. The Arizona Cardinals defense led the NFL in 2016 with 48 sacks. With guys like David Irving and Damontre Moore not even in the mix yet due to suspension, there's certainly reason for optimism about what this year's defense might be able to accomplish.
However, as is generally the case in all life, optimism needs to be tempered. I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer with the rest of this article, just Reggie Reality.
Last year, the Cowboys had some three-sack games. Heck, they even had a few games with four sacks. You might be surprised to know that the Dallas defense actually finished 13th overall in the league with 36 sacks.
Sometimes we can overrate weakness based on a team's comparative strengths. Remember, this Cowboys team went 13-3 (and Week 17 was a giveaway). To say that the pass rush was its biggest weakness is accurate, but that's like saying Jason Bourne's biggest weakness is his memory. The total package is still pretty darn lethal.
That said, there's no denying that the Cowboys were vulnerable through the air. They finished 2016 ranked 26th in yards allowed (4,167) and 24th in opponents passer rating (94.1). Some of that is scheme-based; Rod Marinelli allows teams to chew up yards but then tries to choke them out in the redzone. Dallas was near the top of the league in denying opponent touchdowns.
If the Cowboys are really going to change the narrative about their pass rush then it's going to take a lot more. Last year they had four games in which the team only had one sack and two games with none. That's almost a third of your season with only four sacks; you won't move up the NFL leaderboard with those numbers. The production has to stay more consistent, and obviously we can't know that after just one game.
A big part of making that happen is for one or two individual players to take the lead. You've never heard of a great pass rush that didn't have at least one key player at the forefront, usually a guy with at least 10 sacks or more. "Spreading the wealth" doesn't work; there needs to be a guy who commands the focus of the blockers and opens up things for teammates. This is especially critical in those clutch moments when one play can swing a game.
If you really want to get excited about what happened Sunday, DeMarcus Lawrence could be your focus. Credited with two sacks against the Giants, Lawrence did something in Week 1 that only one Cowboy did all of last season. Only Maliek Collins had a game with two or more sacks; Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns. The most any other Cowboy had in a single game was 1.5 sacks, which happened a few times.
As I've written about more than once, DeMarcus Lawrence has the potential to be a catalytic player on this defense. He showed that in 2015 with a late-season tear that produced seven sacks in the final eight games. Unfortunately, that same guy didn't show up in 2016 due to a four-game suspension and nagging injuries.
If Lawrence can finally live up to his potential then the Cowboys will have something they haven't had since another DeMarcus played here. For several seasons, Dallas has been trying to produce sacks without that one guy who demands extra attention. That is a tough way to make a living in the NFL, which is made clear by our repetitive complaints about the team's pass rush.
A breakout season for DeMarcus Lawrence would do wonders for the entire defensive front. Now couple that with David Irving's potential when he comes back in Week 5, second-year development from Maliek Collins, new weapons like Charles Tapper and Damontre Moore.....
Yes, there's reason to be excited. This Cowboys pass rush may finally stop being a weakness. But one week against an awful offensive line is too soon to know. A larger sample is needed, and we'll get another case study this Sunday in Denver.
Cowboys Focused on Improved Communication to Solve Road Woes at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season. Not only do you already know this, but they do as well, needing to build off a 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 6 at AT&T Stadium to claim first place in the NFC East at the Washington Redskins.
Although the Cowboys were given Monday and Tuesday off, they are focused on addressing one alarming reason why the team has struggled so much on the road -- particularly on offense.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott pointed out the Cowboys lack of communication in early season losses at Carolina, Seattle, and Houston. "Seeing the same thing," was the issue Elliott addressed when discussing the Cowboys knowing their assignments in hostile territory.
Yesterday, Quarterback Dak Prescott told the media of a meeting between players and coaches that addressed this specifically.
Dak Prescott said players & coaches held a meeting before today's practice to "address the elephant in the room," which is poor communication among the offense on the road. "I know we'll take a lot from that conversation," The QB said.
Unlike Prescott's remarks about new "wrinkles" in the Cowboys offense prior to a 26-24 home win over the Lions, this has a tangible sign of progress for an offense that made scoring 40 on the Jaguars look impossibly easy. The Cowboys season high in total yards remains the 414 amassed against Detroit, after which Prescott confessed that he simply tells the media "things" that aren't necessarily true.
The Cowboys didn't necessarily do anything new against the Lions, but they most assuredly will this week against the Redskins, at least by way of signaling and remaining in sync on offense.
Prescott and Elliott's leadership is on full display here, and their on-field impact can be attributed as closely to the Cowboys successes or failures as any duo in the NFL.
Missing is a similar impact from Center Travis Frederick, who remains sidelined as he deals with GSB.
Joe Looney's play at center has been good enough to pave the way for Elliott's 586 rushing yards so far, second to Todd Gurley at 623 yards, but his ability to call checks for the offense is understandably much more limited.
Looney deserves all the credit in the world for his strong play in place of Frederick. The Cowboys have never asked for him to be anything he isn't, a reliable depth option that earned a second contract and with it the starting center job for the time being in Dallas.
He has the full support of his teammates, Frederick included. All of this is lovely to put down in writing until Looney and the Cowboys have been forced to step on the field with the crowd against them and attempt to sustain a drive, something Frederick will unfortunately not be a part of for a long while.
If the Cowboys offense isn't going to unveil new wrinkles in the scheme, there is one wrinkle worth mentioning that's new to the team's communication on offense this season. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan up in the box, his play calls are sent down to first-year Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore, who has been in the ear of Prescott ever since playing with him from 2016-17.
Sure, these are things that could've been addressed before the Cowboys managed only eight points in week one, turned the ball over three times in week three, or punted away their best chance at victory in week five. The best teams in the league likely already have these things down to routine, and few would consider the Cowboys anywhere near the upper echelon of the NFL.
Following sixty minutes of football at a division rival they've won four in a row against, with an even more impressive five game win streak at the Redskins, the Cowboys could control their own path atop the NFC East.
That feels truly incredible for such a young team faced with a steep learning curve early in the season, adjusting to it on the fly as they prepare to leave everything on the field before a bye week.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin Skipping Surgery, May Return in 2018
A groin injury sustained last week against Jacksonville won't send Tavon Austin to injured reserve, at least for now. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has elected to forego surgery at this time, giving him a chance to return to action in 2018.
There was concern that Austin could land on IR initially following the Jaguars game, but he sought a second opinion this week. It appears that this new information was enough for Tavon and the Cowboys to decide that surgery can wait.
Sounds like WR Tavon Austin will not have surgery at this time after getting a second opinion on his groin injury. He could miss a few weeks, however. #cowboyswire
Austin should miss this Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins. He has been the team's punt returner this season and a useful tool on offense, playing mostly receiver but also lining up the backfield at times.
Despite his limited opportunities, Tavon is tied with Cole Beasley for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns in 2018.
How long Austin will remain out is unknown at this time. After the Washington game, Dallas will have their bye week and then host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Both of these are games that the Cowboys, feeling good after a blowout victory over Jacksonville, should be able to win without Austin. But they would certainly like him back for the Week 10 road game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Tavon's absence, Cole Beasley will likely field punts. We may see more of Deonte Thompson in the speed routes that Austin ran on offense, though Dallas could also finally see what recently returned Brice Butler has to offer.
With an expiring contract this year, Tavon will likely want to get back soon and trying to improve his stock for the 2019 offseason. Hopefully, he can still have a positive impact on his value and the Cowboys season in the weeks ahead.
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