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.
Will Cowboys Safety Xavier Woods Return This Week?
The Dallas Cowboys have been without one of their defensive starters for the first two weeks of 2018; safety Xavier Woods. A preseason hamstring injury has kept him in street clothes so far, but Woods could make his season debut this week against the Seattle Seahawks.
The positive update on Woods' status was provided by Owner Jerry Jones in his regular radio appearance this morning.
Jerry Jones on @1053thefan said it appears Randy Gregory (concussion) will be available to play Sunday at Seattle. Jones also thinks Xavier Woods (hamstring) has a chance to play this week after missing the first two games
Gregory has already played this year, suffering his concussion and leaving the season opener against the Carolina Panthers. Even in his absence last week, the Cowboys got six sacks on Eli Manning in their victory over the Giants.
That's not to say getting Randy back isn't noteworthy, but the real news here is the potential for Xavier Woods to take his place as the team's starting free safety.
While Woods has been out, Jeff Heath has been the free safety while Kavon Frazier has started at strong. The plan going into 2018 was for Heath to play strong safety, putting him closer to the line of scrimmage where his skills are best suited.
Xavier was one of the team's most exciting rookies last year, flashing the potential to be a game-changing presence.
Woods' upside is one of the reasons some fans haven't been as desperate about the Earl Thomas situation. While Thomas would be an upgrade in almost any defense, including the Cowboys, the chance to see what Xavier has mitigated disappointment over not acquiring the All-Pro safety.
If Woods can provide what the team hopes for at free safety, it has a positive ripple effect for the roster. Not only do you upgrade at FS, but Heath moving to his ideal role at SS is another improvement.
It also moves Frazier, who's been solid in his playing time, into a valuable bench role. It gives Dallas depth at safety which, up til now, they've lacked in Xavier's absence.
The loser in this deal would likely be either veteran backup Ibraheim Campbell, who Dallas signed two weeks ago to deal with their depth issues, or undrafted rookie Tyree Robinson. Robinson has been with the team since they signed him immediately after the 2018 NFL Draft.
With talk that the Cowboys are looking to bring back WR Brice Butler, a roster spot will be needed. Xavier Woods' return could allow for that spot to come from safety rather than receiver, where Dallas is hesitant to part with any of its current players.
In the end, all we have right now is a "maybe" about Woods' status. But with Dallas' defense already performing well this year, the thought of getting even better is enticing. With the tough road environment of Seattle and Russell Wilson coming up this Sunday, getting Xavier back could be timely.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for Cowboys Against Giants
I don't know about you, but I feel a lot better this week about the Dallas Cowboys after they thoroughly controled the game against the New York Giants last Sunday night. It amazes me how much better they played in the second week of the 2018 season as opposed to what they put on the field Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers.
The Dallas Cowboys performed better in all three phases of the game. The defense was simply outstanding, the offense looked much improved, and the fact that there weren't any breakdowns on special teams is an added plus. Overall, it's hard to be too disappointed with the way the overall team performed Sunday.
With all of that in mind, I want to share with you what I believe is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for the Dallas Cowboys from the primetime matchup with the division rival New York Giants. I know you may disagree with what I decided to go with in each category, but that's part of the fun of it.
If you watched the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Giants Sunday night then you pretty much know what the good was. How could I not go with the Cowboys defense? They were simply phenomenal against the Giants and are starting to become the identity of this year's team.
The Cowboys pass rush continuously put pressure on Quarterback Eli Manning and ended the game with six QB sacks. Nearly every defensive lineman got in on the action, which is hopefully a sign of things to come. The secondary was also really impressive. They played man-to-man coverage nearly the entire game and shut down the Giants aerial attack, including Odell Beckham Jr.
I was also really pleased to see the Cowboys linebackers playing much better. You may not have noticed, but the coaching staff is going with a rotation of sorts with the LBs, and it really looked as if it's helping keep them fresh. This could pay huge dividends moving forward, especially with Sean Lee's injury concerns.
I debated several different things to put in this section, but ultimately I decided the bad for the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night was Quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing game. Yes, it was better than what we saw from them in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done from both Prescott and his receivers.
Unfortunately, Prescott only completed 16 of 25 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown against the Giants. Those are nearly identical numbers to what he put up against the Panthers, the only difference is he was much more successful on the ground, rushing for 45 yards on seven carries. If you take away his long TD completion to Wide Receiver Tavon Austin, those numbers are even more depressing.
The passing game and Dak Prescott needs to improve dramatically. The Cowboys simply aren't going to be able to continue to win games like this. The offense should've been able to put up a lot more points on the Giants Sunday night. Hopefully, things will continue to get better because if not, the Cowboys are in trouble.
There was a number of different directions I could've gone here, but for me the ugly for the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night against the Giants was the penalties. Penalties became a problem for the Cowboys in Week 1 against the Panthers and once again reared their ugly head against the Giants. Unfortunately, this has continuously been a problem under the tutelage of Head Coach Jason Garrett.
The Dallas Cowboys were lucky that the untimely penalties didn't have much impact on the outcome of the game. If they would have been playing a better team than the Giants, they probably wouldn't have overcome the long down and distances. I want to believe this can be cleaned up, but Jason Garrett's going to have to start holding his players accountable, which at this point seems a little unlikely.
The Cowboys players are going to take it upon themselves to cut down the penalties. Most of the time it's just mental mistakes, so there is reason to believe they can accomplish this task. But, they are really going to have to buckle down and focus on remaining consistent down after down.
What is your good, bad, and ugly for the Dallas Cowboys against the Giants?
Monday Morning Hangover: Cowboys Bounce Back Against Giants
Unlike last week, today's Monday morning hangover isn't nearly as bad. Thankfully, the Dallas Cowboys had a bounce back game against the New York Giants Sunday night, meaning you were probably drinking in celebration instead of drowning your sorrows. Hopefully, this continues.
Today, I want to do a little recap over what took place last night for the Dallas Cowboys and share with you some of the good and not so good I observed. Luckily, there was much more good for the Cowboys compared to what they put on the field Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers.
First off, how impressive was the Cowboys defensive play against the Giants? The pass rush consistently put pressure on Eli Manning and finished the night with six quarterback sacks. Nearly all of the defensive line got in on the action. I think we can credit Passing Game Coordinator and Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard for the aggressive game plan.
The pass rush wasn't all that was dominant against the Giants for the Cowboys defense. Dallas' secondary pretty much shut down Odell Beckham Jr. and the rest of the Giants aerial attack. They played man-to-man coverage nearly the entire night and it paid off. Again, I think we can give credit to Kris Richard. He's changed how these defensive backs are being utilized.
The one negative I took away from the Cowboys defensive performance was the missed tackles once again. There were several Cowboys defenders who failed to take down Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley on first contact. Barkley unfortunately was able to pick up several yards after contact because of this. Tackling was a problem against the Panthers as well and it needs to be cleaned up in a hurry.
Offensively, the Dallas Cowboys looked like an entirely different unit than what took the field in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers. Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan was much more aggressive with his playcalling, evidenced by the long touchdown pass to Tavon Austin on the first offensive series.
Unlike against the Panthers, Linehan put Dak Prescott in the best position to succeed. He didn't have No. 4 sit in the pocket, instead he put him on the move and allowed him to use his mobility to put pressure on the Giants defense. I believe this is where Prescott is at his best and should continued to be utilized in this manner.
Ezekiel Elliott didn't have the biggest rushing totals, but we all know the Giants defense was trying to take him out of the game. He finished the night with 78 rushing yards on 17 carries, but he did manage to pretty much put the game away with a rushing TD. Personally, I would love to see Zeke more involved in the passing game, especially down the field instead of around on a scrimmage.
All in all, the Dallas Cowboys did what they needed to do in order to secure the victory. They still have several things they need to clean up and improve upon, but what team doesn't at this point in the season. Now, they need to carry over this momentum into Week 3 on the road against the Seattle Seahawks.
What do you think about the Dallas Cowboys performance against the Giants?
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