Heading into last night's preseason opener Cowboys fans had their minds on three linebackers: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch. Of course, they were right to focus on those three. They are the three most talented linebackers on the roster, and each were taken within the first two rounds of their respective drafts.
During the game against the San Francisco 49ers, however, an under-the-radar linebacker stole the show for the Dallas Cowboys. If you were watching you know that linebacker is Joe Thomas. With Sean Lee out Joe Thomas got a chance to play with the first team defense, and boy did he take advantage of that opportunity.
Joe Thomas finished his night with five tackles, one TFL, and an interception on the play below. Thomas was relentless in pursuit, flying all over the field and keeping himself near the ball at all times. This relentlessness put him in position to capitalize on Kavon Frazier's pass deflection, and come away with the pick.
Multiple times during the first half Joe Thomas made everyone in Cowboys Nation ask "who is that!?" And in the preseason, that's at the top of the to-do list of every lesser-known player.
On the very next play... PICKED. #DALvsSF https://t.co/X62FGTNpKV
Over the last few seasons the Cowboys have severely lacked depth at the linebacker position. When starting WILL Sean Lee is out, which happens quite frequently, the entire unit seems to fall apart. Their attempts at bargain shopping at linebacker, or snagging mid-round depth in the draft, hasn't necessarily worked all that well.
Adding Leighton Vander Esch during the 2018 draft was a step towards building the linebackers as a complete unit, but Joe Thomas' performance last night adds even more stability.
No, Thomas isn't going to take a starting role from Sean Lee, but he does add quality depth behind what are high profile linebackers. Jaylon Smith looked better and healthier last night than he has during his entire time as a Dallas Cowboy, Vander Esch looked like an athletic freak at times, and Sean Lee is still Sean Lee.
If Joe Thomas is going to show up like he did against the 49ers on a nightly basis, the Cowboys suddenly possess one of the deeper front sevens in all of football.
IND 23, DAL 0: Cowboys Get Shut Out, Embarrassed by Colts
The Dallas Cowboys must think they've already won the NFC East, because they looked like a team with nothing to play for today. The result was an embarrassing 23-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Cowboys were shut out for the first time since the 2003 season, which was Jason Witten's rookie year.
Dallas squandered a major time-of-possession advantage in the first half, finishing three drives with a blocked field goal, punt, and a failed 4th-and-1 play near the Colts' goal line. Indianapolis capitalized on their own drives and took a 10-0 lead into halftime.
The Colts got the ball back to start the third quarter and drove down for another touchdown. Down 17-0, Dallas responded with a weak drive and a punt. The game felt out of reach even then, with the Cowboys just looking flat from that point forward.
Ezekiel Elliott had 87 rushing yards 41 receiving for some empty production. Amari Cooper won't be winning any awards this week, held to just four catches for 32 yards.
Dak Prescott completed 62% of his passes for 206 yards. He was sacked three times and threw a late interception; an overthrown ball got tipped by the receiver and picked off on the team's final offensive series.
While the offense was especially bad today, the defense wasn't much better. Dallas surrendered 139 yards rushing yards and two touchdown to Colts RB Marlon Mack, who hadn't had a 100-yard game since October. Andrew Luck wasn't sacked and went virtually untouched the entire day.
The Cowboys could have taken the NFC East with a win, but they didn't come close. Hopefully this serves as a wake-up call with the postseason only a few weeks away.
- With the Redskins defeating the Jaguars today, Dallas will have to wait until next week to try to clinch the NFC East. The Cowboys needed losses by both Washington and Philadelphia if they didn't win themselves. The Eagles are visiting the Rams tonight.
- The Cowboys will get some softer competition to finish the year, hosting the Buccaneers next week and then going to play the Giants in Week 17.
- With the Bears defeating the Packers today and moving to 10-4, they will likely stay the #3 seed in the playoffs. That means Dallas, assuming they do win the NFC East, will almost certainly be hosting the 5th-seeded Seahawks in the first round.
- Jaylon Smith led the Cowboys with 11 tackles, but neither he or Leighton Vander Esch were making the big plays that we've grown accustomed to.
- Xavier Woods had the highlight play on defense, delivering a perfect hit to dislodge the ball from Colts TE Eric Ebron and stop a potential big gain.
- Blake Jarin and Dalton Schultz combined for seven catches for 68 yards; another week of increased TE production from what we've seen must of the year.
- Fullback Jamize Olawale doesn't get many opportunities on offense, and he may not get more after dropping an open touchdown on the team's second drive of the day.
Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Trailing Colts 10-0 at Halftime
The Cowboys have had no trouble moving the ball today, but they've failed to finish drives with points. Dallas is thus trailing the Indianapolis Colts 10-0 at halftime.
Dallas has had possession for over 19 minutes compared to just 10 for the Colts. But their three drives have ended with a blocked field goal, a failed 4th-and-1 play near the endzone, and a punt.
The offensive line continues to suffer from health issues. With Zack Martin already out and Connor Williams starting at right guard, Xavier Su'a-Filo left the game with an eye injury during the second quarter and will not return. Backup Adam Redmond is now playing.
The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win in any of their final three games. They could also clinch today if the Redskins and Eagles lose. Washington is trailing 10-3 in Jacksonville at halftime, and the Eagles are visiting the Rams tonight.
Hopefully, Dallas will start showing up on the scoreboard in the second half.
Remembering the Cowboys NFC East Clinching Win Vs. Colts, 4 Years Later
The 2014 Dallas Cowboys season still feels like a landmark in the rich history of this team. Going deeper into Cowboys annuls is nothing more than a hopeless drift through wasted time that all of us are guilty of, though looking ahead at the 2018 team also leaves just distant memories of 2014.
Perhaps it was the memorable and painful way this season ended, with Dez Bryant's catch in the divisional playoffs at the Packers being played on loop ever since. This clip has surely overshadowed the way Dallas clinched the NFC East in 2014, with a 42-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys find themselves in a similar position Sunday, beginning a stretch of three straight "win and you're in" games. The NFC East will belong to the once 3-5 Cowboys with a win over the Colts, Buccaneers, or Giants.
In that 42-7 drubbing of the Colts four years ago, Tony Romo threw three first half touchdowns to three different targets. At halftime, the Cowboys were on their way with a 28-0 lead, jumping out to a 42-0 advantage before Matt Hasselbeck would throw a garbage time touchdown (yeah, I feel old writing that too).
Just like in this match up, the Cowboys are fresh off a win over the Eagles, as they were in 2014 before rolling to the division title. Four starters from Jason Garrett's first NFC East clincher remain on his roster, though only two will play, speaking to the strides Garrett has made to salvage his reputation this year.
The 2014 Cowboys established themselves as the run-first team that's very much still in tact thanks to Ezekiel Elliott. Only Giants rookie Saquon Barkey has more rushing yards over the last five weeks than Elliott. While Barkley continues to impress for a team that will not make the playoffs, Elliott is carrying the Cowboys closer to the postseason with every carry.
Unlike 2014, the path out of the Cowboys backfield to the top of the division hasn't been as straight. The '14 Cowboys featured a veteran lineup on both sides of the ball, focused on weekly improvements yielding a 12-4 record.
The only time the Cowboys have won more games under Garrett was in 2016, where the Cowboys altered the future of the franchise again with a new-look team that went 13-3 before losing in the divisional round to Green Bay again.
Neither 12 or 13 wins is attainable this year for the Cowboys, but the best of both recent divisional championship seasons is. Wins over the Saints and Eagles have brought back the miraculous 2016 feel Quarterback Dak Prescott's rookie season brought to Dallas. For going through both that season together, as well as a nine win campaign in 2017 that serves as Prescott's "down year", the Cowboys staffers that remember 2014 should be nostalgic at kickoff Sunday.
With the NFL being such a week-by-week, day-by-day, and even minute-by-minute experience, taking the chance to add perspective whenever possible is refreshing. The Cowboys arrival as perennial contenders in 2014 can come full circle with a new cast of players and familiar coaching staff here in week 15.
Remember just how much this team has been through to reach this point the next time you call for sweeping changes to America's Team, and if you're feeling lucky, a prop bet on Garrett having blue Gatorade dumped on him before night's end could go a long way.
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