The Dallas Cowboys have a lot going right for them at the perfect time, entering December on a four game win streak that's put them in the NFC East driver's seat. The 7-5 Cowboys will host their third straight game next Sunday against the Eagles. Having already won in Philadelphia for their first of these four in a row, the Cowboys will have the added benefit of facing the Eagles off just six days rest.
The 5-6 Eagles will play the 6-5 Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Both teams currently sit behind Dallas, which is expecting some key players back on the field as early as next week.
Linebacker Sean Lee, Defensive Tackle David Irving, and Left Tackle Tyron Smith are the three most likely candidates to rejoin the Cowboys lineup in week 14. All three have been important starters at their respective positions, while also seeing their replacements perform well.
Just how the Cowboys handle this late-season infusion of talent will go a long way in determining if they're primed for a playoff run or not. While some returning players have an obvious fit on the field, others will force difficult decisions for a Cowboys front office and coaching staff that's been proven right at every turn so far.
Here is my perspective on how the Cowboys should handle having Lee, Irving, and Smith available on game day.
Left Tackle Tyron Smith
Smith has missed the shortest amount of time out of this trio of players, and also faces the least resistance to regain his starting job at left tackle. Elsewhere on the Cowboys offensive line, backups like Joe Looney and Xavier Su'a-Filo have done their absolute best in rescuing this season, but this won't remain the case with Cam Fleming at LT.
Though the standard set from a year ago for Fleming to live up to was low, the Cowboys veteran swing tackle has kept Dak Prescott upright in wins over the Redskins and Saints.
Amazingly, the Cowboys pulled off their upset over the Saints despite allowing seven sacks. The time is now for the OL to return to full strength - or as close as possible. Using the extra days off to clear Smith of his shoulder stinger is a great way for Dallas to do just this, with Fleming returning to an all-important backup position once Smith is ready.
Ezekiel Elliott suspension aside, the Cowboys didn't stand a chance in 2017 without Smith and Sean Lee. Passing their first test without Smith has been much easier than winning consistently without Lee, though the reason for the latter is much more remarkable.
Linebacker Sean Lee
Does the "hot hand" debate apply to off-ball linebackers? Is Sean Lee a potential victim of surplus wolf hunting, and more importantly why is this a question that makes sense?
Leighton Vander Esch is the answer to all these inquiries and then some for a Cowboys team that absolutely nailed their first round pick. Vander Esch is so much more than a fill-in for Lee, playing at an All-Pro level in just his first season.
The Cowboys drafted the raw defender out of Boise State for his potential, watching in awe with the rest of us as Leighton reaches this potential rapidly. Every week, Vander Esch does something new and impressive, Thursday night being no exception.
If there ever was going to be a game for the Cowboys defense to need a long look in the mirror afterwards, this week's against the Saints should have been it. Vander Esch's body of work would still stand as one of the best for a rookie defender in Dallas in years, opening the door for Lee to overtake his starting job.
Instead, the legend of the wolf hunter grew even more as LVE and Jaylon Smith led a Cowboys defense that allowed just one touchdown to New Orleans.
Simply experimenting with a lineup that features Lee and Vander Esch together is problematic for the Cowboys, as the two have played just 19 such snaps this season. Lee was last seen in the Cowboys most recent loss to the Titans, and the team's need for him much earlier than that thanks to Vander Esch.
Lee has always served as a coach on the field when healthy, and one without the title when unfortunately reduced to street clothes on the Cowboys sideline. The Cowboys don't have to keep things exactly as they are in regards to Lee almost superstitiously ending this elite stretch of play on defense, but any extended time off the field for Leighton Vander Esch would be malpractice.
Perhaps this dilemma is best left to Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, credited for moving Byron Jones to cornerback before this season and changing the entire complexion of the Cowboys defense. What is certain is that Lee will be all for whatever conclusion is reached by the Cowboys to keep their surplus of linebacker talent happy.
Defensive Tackle David Irving
For as much as Sean Lee's teammates rave about playing with "The General", the same is said of David Irving by the Cowboys front four. Irving has become something of an afterthought for a Cowboys defense that can reach new heights should he make his season debut against the Eagles.
The Cowboys have stuck with Irving for a reason, and they'll be ready to show off these reasons as soon as Irving prioritizes his own return to the field. Starting the season with a four game suspension, Irving has recently dealt with a high ankle sprain, the status of which is unknown as he's been absent from team meetings and practices with a personal issue.
Defensive tackles like Irving are nearly impossible to find. Those with pass rush skill and a high motor to play in Rod Marinelli's defense are more common, and fortunately the Cowboys have Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford fitting this bill right now.
Crawford is excelling as an interior defender again, but would readily bounce between the 3T position and defensive end if the Cowboys feel the need for Randy Gregory or Taco Charlton to play reduced snaps.
Irving's length, quickness, and finishing ability has helped everyone around him when he's on the field. The Cowboys already deploy their defensive line in waves, and the impact of these waves would be much more consistent with Irving at DT.
Collins, Crawford, Caraun Reid, and even rookie Dorance Armstrong are all defenders still deserving of playing time at Irving's position, but David has a 6'7", 290 pound hole punched out and waiting for him upon return.
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The Cowboys have been the best team in the NFC East since trading for Amari Cooper. Staking their claim as one of the best teams in the conference began with a 13-10 win against the Saints, and likely needs to end with the Cowboys getting fully healthy over the next four weeks.
An already elite defense's biggest problem over the next ten days before game day is how to use two established, eager-to-contribute talents. On offense, where the Cowboys must improve the most still, Tyron Smith is on track to join Sean Lee and David Irving as the most important players Dallas can move onto the active 46-man roster next Sunday.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018
For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.
After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote
As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.
Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.
His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!
David Irving Out Again for Cowboys, Does Defense Need Him?
Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle David Irving, once a key member of the team's defense, will not make his return after all against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. For the second straight week, Irving was reportedly trending towards suiting up before being ruled out. The Cowboys haven't missed his unique presence for 13 weeks (playing against the Jaguars and Redskins), including through an ongoing four game win streak that began with a win against these Eagles on the road.
In that road win, veteran Tyrone Crawford recorded a sack and three tackles, while Antwaun Woods added two for a Dallas defense that held Philadelphia to 23 first downs and 71 rushing yards. The Eagles managed to cross the Cowboys' 30-yard line just four times.
There are many scenarios in which the Cowboys could have cut ties with Irving for not being worth the off-field trouble he's caused - beginning the season with a four game suspension. The absolute best case scenario is what they've realized amidst this turnaround, with other defensive linemen taking advantage of the opportunity left behind by Irving.
While it can still be true that Irving would make more splash plays than the likes of Crawford, Woods, Maliek Collins, and Caraun Reid, this defensive tackle group deserves praise for their ability to step in. Pass rush ability is one thing teams can't have enough of, and the Cowboys are missing some with Irving, finding ways to win thanks to the other traits these defenders bring to the table.
Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard may effectively be the team's defensive coordinator with an emphasis on the back seven, but DC Rod Marinelli's impact is still felt - particularly up front. Regardless of where they're lined up and deployed, the Cowboys front four is expected to be disruptive on every snap, something this scrappy unit excels at.
Prepared once again to play on the edge this season, Crawford is thriving at his original position of 3T-DT. Crawford has two sacks, nine total tackles, and three other hits on the quarterback over the past four weeks. Leading by example with a relentless spirit on every play, Crawford has meant just as much to the Cowboys defensive ends as Irving could.
In a short period of time, the Cowboys have gone from building up Irving thanks to his transcendent ability to make those around him better to simply -- and importantly -- being better across the defense.
Led by DeMarcus Lawrence as their premier rusher, the Cowboys defensive line is a lot for opposing offenses to contain. The "Hot Boyz" work up front has allowed Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to play fast and make plays all over the field.
Maliek Collins, battling back from his second broken foot in three years, is proving again he's a patented Marinelli guy. Collins' play speaks for itself when considering if the Nebraska product is best as a 3T or 1T tackle. Wherever he's asked to play, Collins creates penetration with an explosive first step and can finish at the quarterback with an array of power rush moves.
At 7-5 and fighting for their playoff lives, the Cowboys are done making excuses on the 2018 season. Their strides on defense speak for themselves, and with a group that keeps Dallas in every game they'll play, the door remains open for David Irving to earn snaps again when ready.
The Cowboys don't know any better than their play without Irving right now, and as winners of four straight, it's worth questioning if we'll see Irving over the last three weeks of the regular season.
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