Even without Ezekiel Elliott, all eyes are going to be on the Dallas Cowboys’ offense tomorrow night at home against the Dolphins. Tony Romo will get the start, Dak Pres
goatcott and Jameill Showers will back him up, and the likes of Alfred Morris and Dez Bryant will make plays all over the field along with unproven players like Darius Jackson and Geoff Swaim.
However, Rod Marinelli’s defense, which forced two turnovers in their preseason opener, will be looking to answer a lot of questions spurred from injuries, lack of depth, or a plethora of depth at various positions.
Here are just a few players that I will be keeping my eye on defensively.
Staying healthy has always been an issue for Morris Claiborne, but the talented corner on a one year deal for 2016 finally has some health and confidence entering the season – where he projects to be Dallas’ top outside corner based on his 2015 performance.
Claiborne has been in some heated competitions with Dez Bryant all throughout training camp, and #24 has shown an edge to him that Cowboys’ fans have welcomed since his selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Morris Claiborne will be looking to further his progress towards a great 2016 campaign by putting out a good performance in front of his home fans. If he’s able to do so, it would be especially impressive considering the depleted defensive line the Cowboys will likely find themselves playing with throughout this game.
Sticking in the Dallas secondary, any game that presents a further chance for Byron Jones to focus on his new craft at free safety is very important to the second-year cornerstone.
Jones will be expected to be a big part of the puzzle the Cowboys need to solve when it comes to forcing turnovers, something they failed at miserably a season ago.
Keep a steady eye on #31 back there at all times.
Where the Cowboys potentially lack at defensive end, they’ll hope to make up for with a steady rotation of versatile defensive tackles in the middle of their four-man front. Jack Crawford flashed at the 3T spot a week ago in Los Angeles, while possessing the ability to provide some push as a rush end.
With David Irving now banged up, Crawford may see more snaps at both positions, and needs to find a way to continue to be disruptive.
If there was one player that clearly disappointed me in the preseason opener, it was second-year defensive end Ryan Russell. After showing some major improvements through camp, Russell looked lost when it came to reading his blocks and getting up the field with pass rush moves.
With another week of practice under his belt, Cowboys Nation can only hope that Russell is ready to show some steady improvement and roll into the September 11th opener as a contender to fill the LDE spot voided by DeMarcus Lawrence and his four game suspension.
A defender that did not underwhelm in his preseason debut was LB Mark Nzeocha, who flew around the field making tackles while intercepting a Jared Goff pass. The Cowboys have a ton of bodies at linebacker, but not a lot of definitive answers when it comes to who lines up where.
Let’s keep an eye on where Nzeocha plays the best through his first two games, and how he will fall into place with the rest of the linebackers and their development.
Speaking of linebacker development, 2015 training camp star Damien Wilson has returned from his paintball accident to put his name back in contention at both WILL and MIKE linebacker. Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens are the presumed locks to start at those positions, but Wilson can certainly find his way onto the field with a strong showing in whatever action he sees tomorrow.
Look for Wilson to hopefully play aggressively and be able to burst and react to the ball in coverage and in run defense.
We’ve already mentioned the depth and play making ability the Cowboys have across the board at defensive tackle, which has made it hard for the less-athletic UDFA out of Akron – Rodney Coe – to impress these coaches.
Viewed as a priority free agent, Coe just has not been able to replicate any of the explosiveness he showed off as a college player. With Cedric Thornton doing the exact opposite and bursting off the football in his Dallas debut last week, Coe is running out of chances to make a lasting impact.