After months and months of speculation and anticipation, the Dallas Cowboys finally held their first practice of the 2016 season on Saturday.
Of course there was a lot to be excited about, most of which surrounded the offense. Tony Romo, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dez Bryant each give us a ton of reasons to be on the edge of our seats anytime this offense touches the ball.
The defense, however, has faced nothing but criticism since the offseason begun. It is also no secret which position group has been most critiqued on this team, the defensive line.
It is just about impossible to win in this league if you cannot get after the quarterback. It is also just about impossible to win in this league if you cannot stop the run. The defensive line plays a huge part in completing both of these goals, so being weak upfront is the last thing you want.
This much maligned defensive line finally got a chance to line-up and begin to show the public and the coaching staff what they have in store for 2016 yesterday. It was simply a walkthrough with no pads, however, so the actual play of these guys didn't mean too much. Where they lined up and who started with what group does have some meaning, though.
First team defensive line: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Ryan Russell
Even though he is facing a four game suspension to start the season, we all knew that DeMarcus Lawrence would be penciled in as the day-one starter at defensive end. He led the Cowboys in sacks a season ago, and will need to improve on his impressive final 8 games of 2015 in order for the Cowboys to take that next step.
Tyrone Crawford will be the Cowboys 3-technique for the entire season, barring injury, so no surprise there either.
The surprises begin on the other side of the defensive line, where the Cowboys must replace the suspended Randy Gregory and fill the vacant 1-technique defensive tackle position. At the opposite defensive end, it is second year player Ryan Russell who worked with the first team. Russell begins this season with a lot of promise and "upside," and has been given a vote of confidence by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Second-team defensive line: RDE Mike McAdoo, Jack Crawford, Cedric Thornton, LDE David Irving
David Irving worked with the second group at left defensive end, and it will certainly be interesting to see how he and Russell compete during camp. Many, including myself, have high hopes for Irving based off his athletic prowess and physical attributes, but it remains to be seen if that athleticism can translate into pass rush production on the field.
By the looks of things the battle for the starting defensive tackle spot is starting to heat up as well. Terrell McClain worked as the 1-technique with the first team, while free agent addition Cedric Thornton worked with the two's.
McClain has struggled with injuries during his tenure in Dallas, but when healthy, he makes the interior of the Cowboys defensive line even stronger than anticipated. Both McClain and Thornton are going to play a lot during the season, so the rotation of the two will be key.
Personally, I like Thornton better than McClain as the starter at this point, but there is still a long way to go before those final decisions are made. Still, considering the amount of money which Thornton was given this offseason, it seems strange that he isn't working with the first group from the get-go.
Mike McAdoo and Jack Crawford filled out the right side of the second team defensive line. Crawford can play both as the 3-technique and as the defensive end, and this versatility will be key for the Cowboys as they deal with suspensions to Lawrence and Gregory.
There are obviously a ton of questions which must be answered by this defensive line. We can't be sure at this point that a pass rush can be consistently created, and only one of these guys even has 10 sacks in his career. But there are some good names in this group, including guys with a lot of youth, athleticism, and raw skills that the Cowboys are hoping can be developed quickly.
Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Maliek Collins should give you a lot of hope about the interior of this defensive line as well.
It's the beginning of a very long season, let's settle in and enjoy the ride that 2016 is going to be.
Jaguars Waive Barry Church; Could Cowboys Bring Him Back?
Veteran safety Barry Church was released today by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Could he return home to the Dallas Cowboys, where he spent his first seven seasons?
Despite his leadership and consistency on defense, Dallas allowed Church to leave in free agency when Jacksonville gave him a lucrative deal. But if he clears waivers, could the Cowboys consider bring him back for depth and support during their likely playoff run?
Jane Slater of the NFL Network reported on this potential reunion:
Cowboys haven't reached out to S Barry Church but I'm told they are discussing the possibility of bringing him back to Dallas according to a source informed. Church, 30, was released by the Jags today and is familiar with the system having played there from 2010-2016.
The Cowboys have had solid play from their current starting safeties, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. Neither is a star, but the duo has not been a liability during the team's current five-game winning streak.
Church was a similar player, reliable if never exceptional, during his time in Dallas. He could be a nice insurance policy for the playoffs if something happened to one of the starters.
Barry knows the system. He never played for Kris Richard, but he was with Rod Marinelli for three seasons before leaving in free agency.
According to reports out of Jacksonville, Church is being released because the team wants to go with younger, cheaper players now that their season is over. There is no known injury keeping Barry from playing.
Of course, Dallas would have to make room on the roster to pick Church up. They could third-year prospect Darian Thompson, who is the current fourth man at safety.
Barry Church must now go through the 24-hour waiver process. A team may claim him, including the Cowboys. We'll see what the future holds.
How the Dallas Cowboys Can Win the NFC East This Week
It's only Week 15, but the Dallas Cowboys could become the 2018 NFC East Champions this week through a couple of scenarios. I thought we'd take a moment today to break down how the Boys can win their division and assure their spot in the playoffs.
With three weeks left in the regular season, most of the divisional games have already been played. The only two left to play are the Week 17 finales; Cowboys at Giants and Eagles at Redskins.
Here are the current standings:
- Dallas Cowboys 8-5 (4-1 in division)
- Philadelphia Eagles 6-7 (3-2 in division)
- Washington Redskins 6-7 (2-3 in division)
- New York Giants 5-8 (1-4 in division)
The Giants have been scrappy lately, winning four of their last five, but it's too late for them to try to win the division. Even if the Cowboys were to fall to 8-8, the best New York could do is tie them in overall record. They would have also split their head-to-head series, negating that tiebreaker.
At that point, it would come down to the record within the division. New York would improve to 2-4 with a win over Dallas in Week 17, but the Cowboys would still be 4-2 against the NFC East. Dallas would still be the division champion.
So, that knocks out New York. Technically, the Eagles and Redskins are still alive. But their margin is about as slim as it gets.
Both Philadelphia and Washington need the Cowboys to lose their last three games, and then to also win out themselves, to steal the NFC East crown.
For the Redskins, it's about their record against division opponents. The best they can finish is 3-3, assuming they'd win their last game against the Eagles. With the head-to-head series against Dallas split this year, they would have to finish 9-7 overall and have the Cowboys drop to 8-8 to become NFC East Champions.
The Eagles also need to finish one game ahead of Dallas, but for a different reason. Philadelphia lost both their games with the Cowboys this year, so Dallas has the head-to-head tiebreaker.
So that really makes thing simple for Dallas; win just one of your last three games and you're the division champion.
Not only that, but even if Dallas were to fall this week against the Indianapolis Colts, they could still clinch the division with losses by the Eagles (@ Rams) and Redskins (@ Jaguars).
It would certainly behoove the Cowboys to get the division locked up now. They could then use the last two weeks of the season to get ready for the playoffs.
Dallas would have the freedom rest banged up players like Ezekiel Elliott and Zack Martin. It would also allow them to work in returning players such as Sean Lee and Tavon Austin and figure out their new rotations without pressure to win.
Beating the Colts on Sunday isn't a given; they're at home and desperate to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture. They are the toughest opponent Dallas has left until January.
But despite that, with the Eagles facing a juggernaut team and Washington trying to play football without a quarterback, there's a great chance that the Cowboys will be the NFC East Champions by Sunday night.
#INDvsDAL: How The Game May Be Decided In The Red Zone
In many ways the Dallas Cowboys offense has found their stride in recent weeks. Over this five game win streak they have "found their identity" playing ball control offense and trusting their quarterback to make big throws when needed most. Of course the defense has been the star most weeks, but this offense should not be slept on either.
This doesn't mean the offense has been without their fair share of struggles, however, particularly in the red zone. Struggles that the numbers say could cost the Cowboys this weeks' game in Indianapolis if they don't get it cleaned up.
In terms of red zone offensive efficiency the Cowboys have been downright horrendous. In fact, they are dead-last in the league in success rate inside the 10 yard line, last in first-and-goal success rate, and 21st in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
There's no sugar-coating those numbers, they are bad. Especially when you consider that this team has arguably the league's best running back and a quarterback with the size and athleticism you might expect from a linebacker.
For as bad as the Cowboys are inside the red zone, the Colts are equally as good. Indianapolis is top 10 in terms of success rate inside the 10, at the goal line, and in first-and-goal success rate. They are also 11th in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
Despite not having the individual running back the Cowboys have, the Colts offensive line and skill players as a whole set them up a bit better when the field is shortened. Tight end Eric Ebron has been rather incredible in terms of production this season, catching 12 touchdowns on 58 receptions. Andrew Luck is also a more accurate quarterback than Dak Prescott, though Prescott should be a much more dangerous red zone threat than he currently is.
I am working on the Cowboys 32nd ranked Goal-to-Go offensive numbers. They have run 35 of their 59 total plays out of Shotgun-11 Personnel. In those 35 plays, the average gain per snap is....12 INCHES. I am not kidding. They could out-gain that by running QB sneaks. I am amazed.
Of course, some of the Cowboys red zone struggles can be pinned on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan has failed to scheme open the "easy" red zone touchdowns we see so often around the league. As pointed out by Bob Sturm on Twitter this week, the Cowboys' personnel groupings and play calls when in goal-to-go situations have been questionable to say the least. But while blame does fall on the coaches' shoulders, the players need to execute better as well.
Games in the NFL often come down to just a handful of plays, and red zone efficiency plays a key role in deciding the outcome of close games every week. If this is once again the case on Sunday, based on past performance, the Dallas Cowboys could be in trouble against the efficient Colts.
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