Welcome to this week's edition of Martin's 5!
The Dallas Cowboys are on an impressive 11 game winning streak, with the hope that streak continues this week against the only team that has beaten them this year, the New York Giants.
The Cowboys and Giants games normally come down to the very end and it is always an entertaining matchup to watch.
These two teams know each other extremely well, but they have both changed over the course of the season since they last saw each other in the season opener.
The Giants may have the home field advantage, but the weather conditions will effect both teams equally. The team that better handles these conditions will likely be the one that comes out on top when time expires.
The Giants need to win this game to hopefully keep their postseason hopes alive, but this is a revenge game in every sense the word for the Dallas Cowboys.
Having said all that, there are still a lot of things I'm wondering about heading into this week's matchup, which is why I started Martin's 5 to begin with.
Below are the five things I'm wondering about this week.
One: Last week's game against the Minnesota Vikings was a tough game to watch, but there was one player in particular that caught my attention by rising to the occasion when the team needed him the most, Anthony Hitchens. Hitchens has been a solid player during his short tenure in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, but really stood out against the Vikings last Thursday. He finished the game with 10 combined tackles, a quarterback sack, and one pass defensed that should have been an interception if not for a questionable penalty that overturned the play. Hitchens played like he had a fire lit under him the entire game, and it got me to wondering if this is the type of player will see more of in the future? The Cowboys defense can use all of the turnovers they can get, so hopefully last Thursday wasn't just a flash in the pan of the type of player Anthony Hitchens can become.
Two: Randy Gregory hasn't played a single snap so far this season, and no one really knows when/if he might be eligible to return to the field. The target date to return from his 10 game suspension was against the Detroit Lions in a few weeks, but he was supposed to be able to start practice with the Cowboys this week. The NFL informed the Cowboys that Gregory is in fact not allowed to practice this week and to further complicate things, they still haven't made it clear whether or not Randy Gregory will be slapped with a year-long suspension for supposedly failing yet another drug test. I wonder what the holdup is here? If Gregory has indeed failed another drug test, then why not go ahead and let the Dallas Cowboys know what's going on so they could come up with some kind of game plan? I don't think anyone knows what's going on, but I think we should know something by the time the Cowboys are set to face off against the Lions in a few weeks.
Three: This is not same offense for the Cowboys that the New York Giants saw back in Week 1. Unfortunately, the Cowboys offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott didn't really get a good chance to get a feel for one another, but that's not the case anymore. We just witnessed Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell rush for over 100 yards against the Giants defense last Sunday and I don't see any reason why Ezekiel Elliott won't be able to do the same. I do however wonder if offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will use Elliott more in the receiving game like the Steelers did with Bell last week? Now, it's just my opinion, but I think Elliott is just as good as a receiving threat out of the backfield as Bell. But, he just hasn't been used in that type of role yet on a consistent basis this season for some reason. Maybe that changes against the Giants.
Four: It was really surprising to learn yesterday that Jason Pierre-Paul had surgery to help fix a torn muscle and will miss up to six weeks. I wonder how much the offensive game plan changes now that he is out of the lineup for the Giants defense? JPP was finally getting back to his old self after injuring his hand in a firework accident and was on a tear these last several weeks. His absence will surely be missed for the Giants defense. His length, speed, and athleticism made him a force to be reckoned with down after down in both the passing and running game. It will be interesting to see if the offensive game plan will attack the side where JPP would normally be or whether or not anything will change it all.
Five: The Dallas Cowboys have already locked up a spot in the playoffs and could win the division this week with a win over the New York Giants. With a win and a loss by both the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, the Cowboys will also secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I wonder if that scenario plays out, if we will see Tony Romo start or at least get a good amount of playing time in some of these last few games? Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that Romo be reinserted as a starting QB permanently. But, it would be good for him to get in there and knock off some of the rest just in case he is needed for some reason.
Is there anything that you are wondering about this week?
Please for free to use the comment section below to share with all of us anything you might have stuck in your head this week.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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