Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.
My how things have changed.
Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.
As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.
Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?
By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.
All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.
On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.
Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.
Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.
Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.
In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.
The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.
Big Games from Explosive Duo?
The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.
Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.
Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances
Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.
Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.
They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.
Rookie Linebackers Dominating
We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.
Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.
Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.
Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.
Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.
This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...
Cowboys 24 - Colts 20
Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section.
Top 5 Offseason Priorities for the Dallas Cowboys
The 2018 NFL Season has come to an end for the Dallas Cowboys and now the team looks to the offseason to gear up for what should be another run toward the playoffs in 2019. As with every team heading into every offseason, they'll have some difficult decisions to make with some of their own players as well as deciding how they want to attack free agency and the draft.
The Cowboys have drafted really well over the last three seasons in particular, but have had a long track record of success in the Jason Garrett era. How we judge the draft this season should take into account what Amari Cooper has been to this team. He's been everything the Dallas Cowboys hoped for when they sent their 2019 first round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for Cooper. The Cowboys, without a first round pick, will have less room for maneuvering around the draft, but as we've seen in the past, they are just as effective in the second round and beyond as they are in the first round.
As we get going in the offseason, let's look at the Dallas Cowboys 5 Most Pressing Priorities.
1. Dealing with DeMarcus Lawrence
The NFL is a passing league. You need players who can throw the ball and catch the ball. On the defensive side of the ball, you must have guys that can get after the passer and cover the receiver.
After moving to the 4-3 defense and the departure of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys struggled to find any pass rushing consistency at the defensive end position. They were led at the position by players like Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, and Benson Mayowa. Finally, the Cowboys selection of DeMarcus Lawrence is paying off has he's had double-digit sacks each of the last two seasons and has been equally effective against the run.
The Cowboys have the option of using the franchise tag on Lawrence again this offseason, which is a possibility as it would prevent other teams from negotiating with the Cowboys best defensive player. While the Cowboys need to continue to build the team through the draft and extend a few players, there isn't a bigger offseason priority than getting DeMarcus Lawrence's deal done.
Jason Garrett on soon-to-be free agent DeMarcus Lawrence: He's certainly as big a priority as there is
2. Making Big Adjustments to the Offense
There was a lot of consternation yesterday at the comments Jason Garrett made to 105.3 The Fan in Dallas-Fort Worth about Scott Linehan's future with the team. It's obviously a possibility that he returns in 2019, but as Stephen Jones mentioned later in the day, it's too early to begin discussing those things as they haven't really began to review the season.
Scott Linehan has been good as an offensive coordinator and he's been a part of Dak Prescott's progression, but there are certain areas of this offense that need to be reworked or shaken up. Whether the Cowboys decide to move on from Linehan or they decide to make adjustments to the scheme, something needs to change. In particular, the team's insistence on using jumbo packages on every short yardage situation has made them predictable.
On 4th and 1 on Saturday, the team went to the Ezekiel Elliott in jumbo formations one too many times. In an era when most of the NFL is attempting to spread things out with 11 and 10 personnel, the Cowboys continue to force two and three tight end formations.
This offseason is just getting started and the Cowboys have a lot of decisions to make about their offense, but none is bigger than figuring out who the play caller is going to be. While the team may be publicly supporting Scott Linehan at the moment, it would be highly unlikely for the team to bring him back for another year.
3. Continue Building the Wide Receiver Corp
The Dallas Cowboys began the process of overhauling the wide receiver corp last offseason when they released Dez Bryant, signed Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, drafted Michael Gallup and Cedric Wilson, and traded for Tavon Austin and most importantly Amari Cooper.
Generally, when the Dallas Cowboys have attempted to rebuild a position, they've done it over a few seasons, like they did with the offensive line, the defensive line, and the linebackers.
This offseason, the Cowboys will have a few decisions to make at the wide receiver position. Do they bring back Cole Beasley? What about Tavon Austin? Allen Hurns would have likely been a player the Cowboys could have used in the slot to replace Cole Beasley, but he's hurt and possibly won't be ready for training camp.
On offense, the passing game began to take shape in the second half of the season as Dak Prescott began to get more comfortable with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. They'll make a nice 1-2 punch heading into 2019, but there is still room for adding a player or two. Depending on the type of contract he'd want, it would be great to bring back Cole Beasley. It's become clear that he's not as big of a focal point in the offense since Amari Cooper has emerged, but he's still a good player that can make some big catches for you.
If the team looked to the draft, one player that is high on my list is Oklahoma Wide Receiver Marquise Brown. He's a home run hitter in every stretch of the imagination. With speed for days, he could be the field stretcher that the team has struggled to find. Not only does he have speed, he's an excellent route runner and has excellent hands and spends the offseason training with Steelers Wide Receiver and cousin Antonio Brown.
If the Cowboys wanted to go the free agency route to add a wide receiver, they should look at Jamison Crowder of the Washington Redskins or Adam Humphries of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to fill their slot wide receiver role. If you remember back to the Bucs game, Humphries was giving the Cowboys fits totaling 10 catches on 12 targets for 79 yards. Crowder struggled with injuries this season and had a down year, but that could mean he'd be cheap to sign, which is the way the Dallas Cowboys do free agency.
There are some nice players in the draft and free agency that the Cowboys could look to add to their wide receiver group, but they'll also be getting back Cedric Wilson, their sixth round pick from last season. The team really liked the production that Wilson had at Boise St. and Wilson was playing well in training camp and was pushing for a roster spot before his season ending injury.
Noah Brown is also a player in line to see more snaps moving forward. He's played well when called upon, using his superior blocking to make an impact in the running game while displaying nice route running and hands in the passing game. If Cole Beasley didn't return to the Cowboys this offseason, I could see the Cowboys giving Brown an expanded role on the outside or using him as a big slot receiver, similar to how the Arizona Cardinals use Larry Fitzgerald or how the New Orleans Saints use Michael Thomas. He has the size to be a mismatch for slot corners and the route running to be a mismatch for linebackers. They could also use Brown on the outside, put Cooper in the slot and then when they want to use Brown as a blocker, could motion him in-line.
Wide receiver will be a big question this offseason as teams must have three or four solid receivers to run their offense. The Cowboys have some players that could be given expanded roles, but should continue to add to the position through the draft.
Most of 2018 was spent discussing the possibility of trading for Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas, and I imagine that much of this offseason will be spent discussing him again. If you got tired of Earl Thomas talk last year, get ready, it's about to pick up.
Earl Thomas will be a free agent this offseason, so he'll be free to sign with any team he chooses and he's made it known that he'd like to play for the Dallas Cowboys. There are several question marks when it comes to Earl Thomas that the Cowboys will have to consider.
When will he be ready to go? What kind of money will he demand? Has health become a concern?
All legitimate questions for a player that will be coming off a broken leg suffered this season. He should be ready for offseason training as there have been videos posted to his Instagram showing him running stadiums. If he's ready to roll by free agency and is able to pass his physical, I bet they take another long look at adding him to the roster.
They have another free agent option that they can look into though in New York Giants Safety Landon Collins. He's a different type of safety than Earl Thomas, but Collins is a player. He's more of a "box" or strong safety that you could use to play the Jeff Heath role, which would leave Xavier Woods playing the free safety spot.
5. Defensive Tackle
Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Caraun Reid, and Daniel Ross played well for the Dallas Cowboys defense, but as we saw on Saturday night against the Los Angeles Rams, they were lacking as a group. In Woods, Collins, and Crawford, you feel good with what you have as you approach free agency and the draft, but they need to add a player that can help them with their interior pass rush.
Much of the pass rush that the Cowboys received this season came from their defensive ends and linebackers. The tackles were good, but inconsistent in their ability to collapse the pocket and not allow any room for opposing quarterbacks to step into.
This is a draft that is deep on defense and the Cowboys will have a chance to add to their defensive tackle spot with their second round pick. With Rod Marinelli likely returning to the Dallas Cowboys next offseason, we know his ability to find diamonds in the rough. I wouldn't be surprised if they go practice squad diving again this offseason and find a player that can have a significant impact like David Irving did in 2017 and Antwaun Woods did in 2018.
It's unlikely that David Irving will be back and Tyrone Crawford could be a cap casualty if the Cowboys no longer want to carry his $10 million cap number.
The Cowboys are likely to bring back DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory is still under contract, as well as Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong. They are pretty solid at defensive end, but could still add a player to compete with Taco and Armstrong. Defensive tackle though, is a place where they need to make a move to upgrade the position. The defense was really good last season, but needs to look for ways to improve heading into 2019.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Dallas Cowboys will do as they always do this offseason as they approach the roster; sign inexpensive veterans with the hope that they outperform their contracts and attempt to draft well yet again. It's a formula that has worked for them and there's no reason to think it won't continue moving forward.
Dallas Cowboys Re-Sign OL Coach Marc Colombo Through 2019
Hiring six new positional coaches and a special teams coordinator prior to the 2018-19 season, the Dallas Cowboys saw plenty of success with this turnover - rebounding from a 3-5 start to reach the Divisional Round before having their season end at the LA Rams. At arguably their most important position, the Cowboys admitted to hiring the wrong fit when Paul Alexander was fired mid-season. Very fortunately, Alexander's assistant was ready to step up and become one of the most respected coaches on the staff, with former Cowboys Tackle Marc Colombo receiving a new contract as OL Coach through next season.
The team announced that Colombo would return on Tuesday. The day prior, Head Coach Jason Garrett said he expects Center Travis Frederick to be ready for the entirety of the offseason program. The two-time 1st Team All-Pro missed the entire season dealing with Gillian-Barre Syndrome.
Source: Cowboys have signed offensive line coach Marc Colombo to a new contract
There's still work to be done this offseason for the Cowboys to maintain their usual standard on the offensive line. Just days removed from the end of the season, in which the Cowboys became the first playoff squad since 1988 to start all players under the age of 30, the Dallas OL is in great position and should remain an overwhelming strength under Colombo.
With Joe Looney set to return to a backup role and Xavier Su'a-Filo under contract, even the Cowboys depth up front is built up nicely well before free agency or the Draft. Cam Fleming and Marcus Martin are the Cowboys offensive linemen with expiring contracts.
The Cowboys averaged 136.9 rush yards per game under Alexander, who introduced an unfamiliar scheme to established veterans like Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. Alexander's time as the Cowboys OL Coach also stunted the growth of rookie Left Guard Connor Williams, who finished the season strong once returning to the starting lineup.
The Cowboys allowed 56 sacks this season, 23 of which (41%) came in the six games under Alexander. Colombo had served as Alexander's assistant, believed to be a candidate to run his own OL room at some point.
When that opportunity came sooner than expected, the Cowboys brought back former offensive line coach Hudson Houck to assist Colombo.
A projected starting lineup of Smith, Williams, Frederick, Martin, and La'el Collins is what Colombo and Houck will have to look forward to when the Cowboys offense takes the field in 2019 - along with rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott and fourth-year Quarterback Dak Prescott.
Colombo described himself as the "luckiest guy on the planet," when asked about his opportunity to continue coaching with his former team.
Leighton Vander Esch To Top Rookie Season With Pro Bowl Trip
Dallas Cowboys' rookie Leighton Vander Esch has done enough to prove every single doubter wrong. When Roger Goodell called his name during the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, many in Cowboys Nation rejoiced at the thought of having a young linebacker for a defense surrounded with uncertainty. However, many analysts doubted the draft pick. For a lot of people (sadly, I include myself in this category), the pick should've been used on another player. For most, despite acknowledging his raw talent, Vander Esch wouldn't be able to provide the Cowboys with an instant impact player. Ah, well.
After a remarkable season, Vander Esch (a.k.a. Wolf Hunter) has earned a spot on this season's second-team All-Pro. When the Pro Bowl voting began, Vander Esch was snubbed from the ballot itself. It didn't took the NFL long to realize their mistake and add the Cowboys' linebacker to the list. Despite missing the cut at first, Vander Esch will be heading to Orlando to play in this year's Pro Bowl on January 27th.
DallasCowboys linebacker @VanderEsch38 has been added to the 2019 Pro Bowl Roster. 🐺 Congratulations, rookie! → https://t.co/AYqEUy2tZx
The former Boise State Bronco will be replacing Carolina Panthers' LB Luke Kuechly, who won't be participating because of an injury.
Vander Esch racked up 140 tackles (per Pro Football Reference), ranking third in the league in this category. He finished the season as the fifth best linebacker in Pro Football Focus' rankings.
But numbers aren't really enough to fully appreciate what Vander Esch did for the Dallas Cowboys. A team that was used to seeing its defense break when veteran Sean Lee went down injured, did not only get someone to fill in for Lee. Vander Esch actually upgraded the Cowboys' defense. It didn't matter where the ball went, he was always around when opponents were tackled. His speed and chance of direction allowed him to run sideline to sideline, covering a huge portion of the field.
Along Jaylon Smith, Dallas managed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.
The last time a defensive rookie from the Cowboys went to the Pro Bowl was in 1981, when Everson Walls made the team. Vander Esch is the 11th rookie in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. This year, the rookie will be accompanied by DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott.
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