The Dallas Cowboys face their toughest test of the season on Thursday night, hosting the 10-1 Saints at 6-5. A Cowboys defense that's held opponents to 19.4 points a game will have to stand their ground against a Drew Brees offense averaging 37.2 - the best output in the league, as New Orleans has won ten in a row.
An upset win would go a tremendously long way in cementing the Cowboys status as not only NFC East contenders but a playoff threat, while a loss would hardly take the Cowboys out of the race with four games remaining.
Cowboys Linebacker Sean Lee is eyeing a return for the Cowboys divisional game against the Eagles next week, already ruled out officially for Thursday. A year removed from missing five games that the Cowboys lost four of by an average of 14.75 points, the Cowboys defense has hardly missed a beat without Lee on the field.
Cowboys' final practice report of the week is out. Swaim, Sean Lee, David Irving & Tavon Austin have been ruled out. Tyron Smith is officially listed as questionable and will likely be a gametime decision. Saints left tackle Terron Armstead is also out #cowboyswire
The Cowboys organization on defense without their General is yet another way to praise the wonderful surprise that's been rookie first round pick Leighton Vander Esch.
Vander Esch and Lee have only been on the field together for 19 snaps this season, hardly the Cowboys plan when they locked onto the raw defender out of Boise State early in the draft process. In games where both linebackers are available to play, Vander Esch is averaging 32 snaps a game, well below the 58.8 he averages when primarily handling the WILL LB position in Kris Richard's defense.
The accolades Leighton has earned through his first season speak for themselves. Vander Esch is second in the league in tackles (71), third among linebackers in passes defended (7), and second in interceptions (2) thanks to takeaways against Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan in the last three weeks.
All signs point to Vander Esch holding up against an offense as prolific as the Saints, no matter how the rest of this Cowboys defense steps up - largely to be determined by their offense's own ability to execute and score points.
Vander Esch's league-high 40 tackles against passing plays is another thing he has going for him into a match up against a balanced Saints team that will still drop back to throw an average of 32.4 times a game.
The Cowboys are a young team that shouldn't be defined by any one game this season, most certainly not this one against the Saints. What very well may define them is their response to the reality check this streaking Saints team is prepared to deliver from AT&T Stadium, needing to regroup quickly for an Eagles team that saved its season a week ago with a home win of their own.
The Cowboys home game against the Eagles was one Lee missed a year ago - the result an ugly 37-9 loss in which Dallas allowed a season high 215 rushing yards. Unacceptable results like this are at the very heart of why Vander Esch is a Cowboy, and why a looming decision on the 32-year old Lee will be so tough.
It was hardly just Lee's absence that derailed the Cowboys last year, as they also played pivotal stretches without Left Tackle Tyron Smith (questionable for Thursday night, did not practice this week) and Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys had a brief look at Smith's replacement on Thanksgiving, as Cam Fleming stepped up where no backup lineman could in 2017 against the Redskins.
A much more extended look at Leighton Vander Esch has been absolutely warranted by the rookie's level of play. His understanding of responsibilities has allowed him to play with the youthful energy that's fit DC Rod Marinelli's relentless style of play.
Lee's importance to the Cowboys can only be covered in the same exhaustive nature as Vander Esch's rise to one of the top young defenders in the NFL. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are undoubtedly the future at the linebacker position for Dallas.
It will be easy to say the Cowboys missed Lee if the Saints have their way on offense, but this simply hasn't been the case all year-long thanks to Vander Esch. The Cowboys must not become victim's of recency bias at the perfectly wrong time following this game, needing to trust their defense as currently constructed to keep this team within reach of the playoffs.
The Cowboys remaining non-divisional games at the Colts and home against the Buccaneers both feature offense's currently in the top ten of points per game.
The very game that set up the hype this prime time match up between the Cowboys and Saints has garnered was one of Vander Esch's best, as the Cowboys saved their season in Philadelphia behind LVE's 13 tackles (season high) and interception. It was the first of the three consecutive wins Dallas enters Thursday Night Football with.
Takeaway Tuesday: Scott Linehan’s Job Shouldn’t Be Safe
The Dallas Cowboys didn't look like they did during their five game winning streak when they entered Lucas Oil Stadium to face a hot Indianapolis Colts team. In fact, they had one of their poorest showings of all season, failing to score a single point all game. Heading home after being shutout 23-0, there isn't much to be said about the Cowboys' performance.
Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday. This time, instead of talking about many takeaways, I needed to get one big takeaway off my chest. I hope you enjoy. Make sure to let me know how you feel about this topic in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL.
Scott Linehan's Job Shouldn't Be Guaranteed Going into the Playoffs
As tough as it is to fire one of your three main coaches when your team is headed into the postseason, the Dallas Cowboys should not rule out moving on from Scott Linehan. One win away from clinching the NFC East, it's not something you easily pull off but Linehan's play calling has been terrible all year long.
The truth is, despite Dak Prescott's struggles and a disastrous offensive line, the offense shouldn't be as inefficient as it is.
Watching a unit that counts with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott run a screen pass to Allen Hurns on fourth down and 14 was truly a microcosm of what this year has been for the offense.
Despite having a playoff berth practically clinched, the Cowboys should consider a change at offensive coordinator. Even if they don't fire Linehan, it's clear his play-calling is not good and could cost this team a real opportunity at a legit shot in the postseason. It would be an aggressive measure, without a doubt. The Minnesota Vikings did something similar by firing John DeFillippo a week ago. Based on their 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, being aggressive sometimes pays.
The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott and yet they continue to misuse him. Whether it's turning their backs on their star tailback or over-using him, this offense has a hard time reaching balance. Dak Prescott's strengths could be exploited even more, but this OC refuses to do so.
As hard as it is to make a drastic change in coaching two weeks before the regular season ends, it truly could end up being a great move by the front office. Sure, Amari Cooper has had monster games since joining the Cowboys, but he could be even more dangerous under another coach.
Cowboys versus Colts was a coaching battle between Scott Linehan and former Dallas Cowboys LB coach, Matt Eberflus. It was the matchup of the week, and one we expected to be fun. Instead, we saw one side completely dominate the other. In the NFL, coaching matters. Probably even more than talent on a roster.
The biggest problem would be, who'd take over play-calling?
Since there isn't a promising candidate within the team, the team's only option would probably be letting HC Jason Garrett take over. It may not be ideal, but it could end up being an improvement over Linehan. Of course, it could also let the front office see what Garrett has to offer as a play caller and consider that when deciding how this coaching staff will look like in 2019.
It's unlikely that we see such a thing occur for the Cowboys, but if the offense has another letdown game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don't see how the front office doesn't at least consider this. They should.
Ezekiel Elliott Productive in Cowboys Blowout Loss to Colts
It was as ugly of a performance as we’ve seen from the Dallas Cowboys in the Jason Garrett era. For the first time in a decade and a half, the Cowboys were shut out and it was a game full of bad pretty much everywhere you looked. Everywhere accept Ezekiel Elliott.
What a waste!
Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line played well for much of the game even with All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin missing his first career start and losing starting Left Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo went out with an eye injury.
On the day, Ezekiel Elliott carries the ball 18 times for 87 yards and added another seven receptions for 41. 25 touches for 128 total yards is a good game, but with nothing else going right for the Cowboys it was a game that ultimately didn’t matter.
The one play where Elliott and the offensive line failed to come through was early in the game in a fourth and one that the Colts defense seemed to have snuffed out and blew up from the start. Elliott was able to convert a fourth and one later in the game. It looked like Elliott was close to breaking one for a long run several times but got tripped up at the end of the runs. He was his typical self this week. Taking runs that looked to be going for a loss and turning them into positive gains.
In the race for the NFL's rushing title, Elliott has extended his lead on Todd Gurley to nearly 100 yards rushing. At 1,349 rushing yards on the season, Elliott will have a great shot to set a career high in rushing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants remaining on the schedule. The Bucs have allowed the sixth most rushing yards and the fourth most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season while the Giants have allowed the fifth most rushing yards and the seventh most rushing touchdowns in 2018.
It was a horrendous loss at a time when the Cowboys could have locked up the NFC East and there is zero excuse for it. They got out coached, out played, and were beaten physically on both sides of the ball and that doesn't happen very often, especially to the defense.
But if we're looking for something positive to take away from this game, it's that with all the offensive line injuries and the poor play of the passing game, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game continues to find ways to shine. With as bad as the loss was, that's something to hang your hat on.
All the Cowboys need to do moving forward is Feed Zeke!
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Division Clinch with Shutout Loss at Colts
What is there to say about the Dallas Cowboys week 15 performance? After five straight wins, the last three coming at home, the Cowboys have only a return home to look forward to, facing the 5-9 Buccaneers on Sunday after a 23-0 defeat at the Colts.
Shutout for the first time since 2003, the Cowboys playoff hopes didn't take a hit despite the Redskins and Eagles winning on the road. Washington's last-second win went final just before the Colts ran the clock out on a game the Cowboys simply weren't ready for.
The Cowboys moved the ball well at times but failed to ever come away with points, opening the door for the Colts to expose this defense like it hasn't been all season. The Cowboys front four was hardly a factor on defense, allowing Colts Running Back Marlon Mack to average 5.1 yards a carry. Scoring the Colts only touchdowns, Mack and Andrew Luck assured the Cowboys running game wouldn't be a factor with their 10-0 halftime lead. Down to three backups at LG, C, and RG, Quarterback Dak Prescott stood little chance to bring the Cowboys back as the second half quickly got away from Dallas.
Internally, the Cowboys will have much more to say about their effort on Sunday, but here are just a few of my observations in the first somber edition of Sean's Scout since week nine.
- The Cowboys defensive problems up front extended well into the second level, with Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both playing one of their worst games of the season.
The Colts took a blocked Brett Maher field goal 44 yards for the game's opening score. Mack accounted for 34 of these yards and the touchdown. On his seven yard run to set up first and goal, Smith was caught taking a poor angle on Mack. The Cowboys were aggressive rushing up the field on the play, with Smith ending up being in the best position to slow Mack.
Vander Esch was sealed and couldn't fight to get off, which happened again three plays later on third and goal. Leighton looking like a rookie for the first time was just the start of the Cowboys problems, and with Sean Lee being active yet conceding starting snaps to him, it shouldn't take long for Vander Esch to figure things out again.
- Jamize Olawale's dropped touchdown on third and goal to bring up a failed fourth and one was the moment the Cowboys were taken out of this game.
This sequence was particularly deflating because the Cowboys did a great job getting down the field to have an opportunity to score. The fourth down decision to run out of a heavy formation, inviting extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, looks especially egregious when stacked against the Amari Cooper rush that picked up the Cowboys initial first down. Rookie Tight End Dalton Schultz got involved, Elliott ripped off a 24 yard run, and the Cowboys still came away empty on this drive.
A year removed from coaching the Cowboys linebackers, Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus had his way with Scott Linehan's offense all afternoon, stymieing their most promising drive after Olawale should have scored easily.
- The Cowboys only chance to get back in the game was taken away from them by a Joe Looney holding call, just another example of players that had carried them through a winning streak not playing up to standard.
The Colts took the second half kickoff down the field to extend the lead to 17-0. On fourth and two on the ensuing possession, Prescott hit an injured Cole Beasley for 18 yards to the Colts' 23-yard line. The Cowboys red zone offense certainly doesn't provide the confidence that Dallas would finish the drive, but Looney's hold negated Beasley's catch and forced a punt.
The Colts tacked on a field goal and finished out the game without the Cowboys threatening again. Looney played down to the level of Adam Redmond to his left, who replaced Xavier Su'a-Filo, and Connor Williams in for Zack Martin - though I thought Williams held up fairly well and should be in play to earn more snaps wherever needed.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys can regroup and still accomplish everything they set out for this season, forced to make this loss to the Colts and afterthought like their last one to the Titans became. A five game win streak as a response is out of reach, but a streak of just one is all Dallas needs to clinch the NFC East and focus on improvements for the playoffs.
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