Granted, you could say this about most top talents on teams across the NFL and on either side of the ball. But these key Cowboys face some extra pressure because of the circumstances surrounding them; roster turnover, suspensions, and question marks throughout the rest of the defense.
What's more, these defensive leaders also face having to support what many feel will be a league-leading offense. They are up against the criticism of being the team's biggest weakness and liability, amplified by the fact that Tony Romo and Jason Witten's window is closing.
Let's take a look at each player and see what opportunities and concerns they face in 2016. How can they individually impact the collective direction of the defense?
Outside of the quarterback, Lawrence may be under the heaviest scrutiny of any other Cowboy in 2016. Not only is he a third-year player with breakout-season expectations, but Lawrence upped the ante with a four-game suspension for PEDs. That mistake has cost him some goodwill, which only increases the need to perform.
Lawrence set the bar high with how he finished last season; seven sacks in his final eight games. Even with the suspension in 2016, that projects to at least a 10-sack season if he's producing at the same rate.
Stats aren't everything, of course, but few positions are more tied to a single number than defensive end. In the 4-3 scheme, DEs are judged by sacks by the mainstream. How you play against the run or how much you pressure the QB is something for the coaches. When it comes to Pro Bowls, All-Pro selections, and other notoriety everyone looks at your sacks.
DeMarcus Lawrence has to deliver. He can make everyone forget about the suspension with strong play in the other 75% of the season, and hopefully in January.
I wrote back in May about how Crawford needed to finally reward the Cowboys faith. That's even truer now, given the other issues on the defensive line.
Crawford's already missed the first week of camp with a minor back issue. He's expectedto return next week, but it still seems like there's always something with this guy. The Cowboys can't afford another year of injury excuses from one of their highest paid players.
While the combination of Terrell McClain and Cedric Thornton did well together in his absence, Crawford is supposed to be a different caliber of defensive tackle. He's paid like an 8-10 sack guy who should be closer to the Pro Bowl than Injured Reserve.
While the Cowboys are trying to cobble together some defensive ends for Weeks 1-4, they need stability and dynamic play in the middle of the line. McClain and Thornton can be solid but Crawford is the one with game-changing potential. It's time for potential to become performance.
Nobody on our defense has earned more confidence than Lee. He is one of the best players in the NFL when his body allows it and easily the top defender in Dallas.
Last year Lee played in 14 games, which felt miraculous after the last three season. Lee missed all of 2014 with a major knee injury and 15 games between 2012-2013. We can only hope that last season was the start of a new trend, rather than the anomaly.
The pressure on Lee has been increased by the absence and seemingly permanent downfall of middle linebacker Rolando McClain. I was excited for having Lee and McClain perhaps finally put in full healthy seasons together, but now it looks like Rolando will never put on a Cowboys jersey again.
Dallas has some good options to replace McClain. Anthony Hitchens is in his third year, has played the position before, and so far has had a strong camp. They also brought back veteran Justin Durant as insurance.
Like with Tyrone Crawford, Lee has to be the bedrock that all these other moves and relief efforts are be built on. The trickle-down effect of one dynamic player can be huge for his position. Sean Lee is certainly that, so long as his health doesn't get in the way.
After missing all of 2015, Scandrick returns as the team's top cornerback and one of its most vocal leaders. We can only hope that his play will live up to it.
Scandrick was 27-years-old the last time he played football. He's now 29, which can be a big leap for players who rely on their speed and agility. Throw that on top of returning from a severe knee injury and there is some question as to how much his physical tools will be diminished.
I've always felt like we've overrated Scandrick a little in Dallas. Yes, he's been our best cornerback for several years. But the bar has been set pretty low for that position for a long time. Combine that with his age and absence and I'm a bit concerned about relying on him so heavily in 2016.
Matters are only worse with the questions marks surrounding Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
We've heard only good things about Claiborne's play so far in Oxnard but that's been the case every year. I won't put any stock in it until it happens in the regular season. Carr is now 30 and should be relied upon less as time goes, rather than being our only stable corner.
Scandrick is supposed to the guy who makes everyone else better. He's supposed to draw the tough assignments and be the playmaker. Hopefully he still has the tools to make it happen.
We're all making a big assumption that Jones, the second-year player transitioning to full-time safety, will be an improvement over J.J. Wilcox. All signs points to "Yes," but all we have right now is speculation.
There's no question that Jones has the athleticism, ball skills, and intelligence to be a dynamic safety. However, even for a first-round pick, it's a lot to ask of a guy in his second pro season.
Moving to Jones safety is not just about what he can do that Wilcox couldn't, but also what he might do to help Church. If Jones can be a ballhawking, "center field" safety then it allows Dallas to get Church closer to the line of scrimmage. This is where Church excels and the combine effect could have a dramatic improvement on overall safety play.
It's been a long time since it felt like Dallas' safeties were a strength for the defense and not a liability. Turning just 24 this September, Byron Jones has been given a significant responsibility. If he delivers, he might be the Cowboys best defense draft pick since DeMarcus Ware.
Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys Have a Championship Defense
The Dallas Cowboys are not only breathing in playoff contention, but they're now the favorites to crown themselves as the NFC East champions in 2018. It's pretty impressive how the tables can turn so quickly in the NFL. Dallas played very well against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday and we learned quite a bit from them as they bounced back to .500. Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday! Enjoy it as much as you did Brett Maher's game winning field goal a couple of days ago.
Cowboys Have a Championship Defense
Despite taking steps in the right direction, it's impossible to compare this offense to units like the Chiefs, Saints and Rams. However, it's the Cowboys' defense that could be labeled as a championship unit. Facing an offense with such a strong WR core, allowing only one touchdown on the road is impressive.
The Cowboys sacked Matt Ryan three times and were constantly causing pressures. Byron Jones was great once again, allowing only two catches in passes thrown in his direction. And of course, the kid who's been impressing us all, Leighton Vander Esch continued to play out of his mind. He should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year front runner at this point.
The Cowboys' defense is one of the best in the NFL right now, and any offense will have a tough time facing them. It'll be intriguing to see if they can take the next step and stop a high-powered unit like the Saints in a few days.
Offensive Line Woes Are Gone
The offense has improved a lot the last couple of games. Although there is still a lot to work on, they're not struggling as they were in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a huge part of this. With Marc Colombo at OL coach, things have looked very different in Dallas.
Ezekiel Elliott: "I feel great. I feel fast. I feel physical. I feel very comfortable with the running schemes. We just got to keep rolling. That's what's important. We just got to keep rolling.
Ezekiel Elliott has been on a roll the past two weeks and his comments regarding how he feels about the running schemes shouldn't go unnoticed. The offensive line wasn't playing as well as they are right now earlier in the year. Dak Prescott is noticeably more comfortable in the pocket.
It's intriguing to know what will happen at left guard for the Cowboys. With Connor Williams injured, Xavier Su'a-Filo has done a good job filling in for him. Williams has the upside, but should Dallas mess up the mojo this OL has lately?
Dak Prescott: Clutch QB
Dak Prescott continues to be criticized by fans while he keeps proving us why it's not that easy to move on from him. The guy is far from the perfect passer, yet he's been clutch time and time again. This time he did so on the road on an impressive two minute drill.
With 1:46 on the clock, Prescott marched his team down to the Falcons' 24 yard line. He managed to give his team another game winning drive in consecutive weeks. The Cowboys' young quarterback needed a confidence boost and this is perfect for him. He needs to keep it up if the team is going to finish the season as the NFC East champions.
Since entering the NFL, Dak has 12 game winning drives. As frustrating as his play is at times, he will not be easy to replace if the Cowboys decide to move on from this guy down the road. Hopefully, they don't have to. I, for one, believe Dak can be way better with a proper coaching staff. But that's a discussion for another day.
Now, it's time to celebrate the Cowboys' victory and get ready for a short week as the Cowboys play the Washington Redskins on Thursday.
Geoff Swaim Needs Surgery, Should the Cowboys even use a Tight End?
Well, the injury woes continue to mount for the Dallas Cowboys with news coming down this evening that Tight End Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist in the 22-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The injury will need surgery which will mean Swaim will be out a while, if not for the rest of the season.
Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist yesterday and is going to need surgery. Sounds like it might not be season-ending, but he won't be available Thursday #cowboyswire
In previous seasons this wouldn't be much of a blow to the offense, but Geoff Swaim has been the only tight end that the Cowboys have ben able to rely on this season. Dalton Schultz is a rookie, Blake Jarwin's been inconsistent, and Rico Gathers still isn't fully trusted. With the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan's insistence on using a tight end, it seems there's a huge hole at the position heading into Sunday's first place showdown with the Washington Redskins.
But in reality, is there?
For weeks, I've been screaming for this team to use more 10 personnel (one running back and zero tight ends) as its primary passing formation because it gets their best pass catching weapons on the field at the same time. Swaim has been solid and consistent in his first year as a starter, but the rest of the tight end group has disappointed. So why even run a tight end out on the field.
The Dallas Cowboys have options that could replace the tight end in the passing game without actually using a tight end.
First, they could use Noah Brown as the de facto tight end. He's been one of the best blockers on the team in his first two seasons with the team and this is the type of role he's made for. Split him out wide and motion him in tight when you want to run. He can be a threat down the seem and in the red zone with his athleticism. He'd be a mismatch for the linebackers that try to cover him and could open space underneath for Cole Beasley. Brown is also a really good run blocker, so having him on the field doesn't negate what you want to do in the run game.
The other player the Cowboys coaching staff could work into more of the tight end route responsibilities is Allen Hurns. Hurns is a really good route runner, especially in the middle of the field, where the Dallas Cowboys haven't received a lot of production. You can put Hurns in as the fourth wide receiver and split him a couple of yards off the tackle to give him a cleaner release than a TE might get and have him run "Y-option," shallow post routes, or drags. He can be a threat in the passing game if put in situations where he can excel. See below for something Allen Hurns does really well.
In fact, by going four wide receivers with Brown or Hurns on the field, it's possible the opposing defense is forced to run more of dime packages against the Dallas Cowboys 10 personnel.
Why would you want to get teams into dime packages?
Most NFL teams have two pretty good linebackers that they can deploy in nickel situations, but teams rarely have four corners that they can put on the field and feel really good about. So, if you can force teams to remove one of their 11 best players for a backup corner back or safety, you are already winning that matchup.
That matchup would also get you into much more favorable defensive fronts to run against. Even if the opposition put seven or eight in the box, it would be against smaller personnel like corners and safeties instead of a second linebacker.
Running 10 personnel as their base offense moving forward would be unconventional, but with an opportunity to take control of first place in the NFC East on Thanksgiving, now is not the time for conventionality.
Cowboys WR Michael Gallup on Personal Leave; Team Offers Support
Dallas Cowboys rookie receiver Michael Gallup suffered a personal tragedy on Sunday, being informed that his brother committed suicide. He is now on personal leave away from the team, and both Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have given their full support to Gallup during this difficult time.
According to reports, Gallup was unaware of his brother's death until immediately after the Cowboys' win over the Atlanta Falcons. Michael did not return with the team to Dallas and remained in Atlanta to be with his family.
A formal statement was made by owner Jerry Jones yesterday regarding Gallup:
“Our team and our entire organization are deeply saddened by the news of Michael’s loss. His family is our family. We share in the grief and pain that comes with something so personal and tragic. We offer our support, care and comfort for Michael, and we ask that all of those who have sons and daughters and brothers and sisters join us in keeping Michael and his wonderful family in their thoughts and prayers.”
Throughout his time owning the Cowboys, Jerry has built a reputation for personal loyalty and compassion with his players. His head coach is no different.
As he addressed the media Monday, Jason Garrett did not get into football matters when addressing Gallup's situation:
“This is a very challenging time for him. We’ll take it moment by moment, day by day, and give him all of our love and all of our support.”
While Michael is certainly dealing with something far more important than football, his availability for Thursday's Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins does come into question.
The Cowboys have a short week to prepare for Washington, and Gallup has started their last five games. If the rookie has to sit, which seems probable given the timeframe, we can expect more playing time for Allen Hurns and Noah Brown.
Whatever happens happens on that front. Our focus is on Michael Gallup during this sad time, with him and his family in our collective thoughts as Cowboys fans and fellow humans.
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