If the Cowboys are going to finish off their 2016 season in Houston for Super Bowl LI, they will have to get past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' passing attack today to earn a date with Matt Ryan and the high-flying Falcons, all just to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl against either Tom Brady, Alex Smith, or Ben Roethlisberger.
Basically, it goes without saying that the corner backs for Rod Marinelli's defense are going to have to step up as they have all season long. Not only has this unit benefited from some great safety play (which I broke down on Saturday in "Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Safeties"), but they are finally back at full health in time for the playoffs.
Let's take a closer look.
Brandon Carr has once again proved to be an iron man this season in the Dallas Cowboys' secondary, extending his career starts streak through another season. Not only did Carr appear in all 16 games in the silver and blue once again, but he did so at a new position - transitioning to the right corner spot.
Even prior to this move, Carr received plenty of unwarranted criticism from fans that have begged for more out of their high-paid free agent acquisition of 2012. Far from perfect, Brandon Carr consistently does his job and limits big plays in the passing game - a trademark for this 2016 Cowboys' defense.
Opposing offensive coordinators are going to try to throw everything they can at Carr and the rest of these corners in an attempt to out score Dallas, and I expect Brandon - who will be a free agent after the season - to be ready for the challenge.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) January 12, 2017
The reason for Brandon Carr's position change this season is mainly because of the resurgence that Morris Claiborne has had. When on the field, Claiborne has played like a true shutdown corner in every sense of the word, with things beginning to trend upwards for him in 2015.
Unfortunately for Claiborne, his health has been an issue once again this season, as he has been sidelined since a week 8 home game against the Eagles. Ready to go once again, it is unclear what Claiborne's role will be today and throughout the playoffs, easing back into the defense with the luxury of solid depth behind him.
If Morris Claiborne is anywhere close to his early season form though, earning snaps will not be a problem, as he will quickly become one of the Cowboys' biggest keys to success. Claiborne has answered the bell with improved confidence and technique against elite wide receivers like A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, and Odell Beckham Jr., and now he may be in a position to prove himself further (also in a contract year) against the likes of Davante Adams and Julio Jones.
— ✭Cowboys News✭ (@DemBoyz_News) January 5, 2017
Orlando Scandrick has found his form recently for the Cowboys as the shifty cover corner that has been counted on as a reliable veteran presence for years now, and it means great things for the versatility that Dallas can deploy at corner back.
Battling with his own injures, Scandrick has appeared in 12 games, asked to bounce between being a slot and boundary corner in each. His recent streak of excellent play has come out of the slot, with rookie Anthony Brown holding his own on the outside.
Scandrick is the perfect slot corner for the Cowboys this postseason not only because of his experience, but for his ability to use the teammates around him to be successful. With ideal length and short-range quickness, Scandrick redirects routes to other safeties and linebackers with ease, which leads to him being around the ball.
A corner that thrives on his own momentum from stringing together positive plays, Scandrick will be in for a fight with all of the receivers he could see in the playoffs - starting with the Packers' pass catchers today.
Look for not much at all to change with #32 though, and for any team that looks to test the eight year Cowboy too much to pay the price.
Here's a fun question. Who is the third best rookie on the Dallas Cowboys? With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott headlining a stellar 2016 draft class, rookie corner and sixth round pick Anthony Brown has not only been ultra-impressive, but necessary at times to keep the Cowboys secondary formidable - making a strong case for this final podium position behind Prescott and Zeke.
Brown, who was projected as a slot corner by most draft analysts, has been asked to play all over the field, finding a starting role in key spots as an outside corner in the absence of Morris Claiborne.
Known for his speed out of Purdue, Brown's full skill set has translated seamlessly into the NFL thanks to his off-the-charts awareness. Defensive backs that get their hands on passes have unfortunately been a rarity for Cowboys Nation in past years, but now players like Brown have made it a standard - as #30 consistently closes on unsuspecting WRs to contest a throw at the catch point.
Like Carr and Scandrick, teams are going to equally attempt to test Brown simply because of the rookie status associated with his name. Anyone that has watched the Cowboys throughout this season knows however that Brown is already playing like a seasoned veteran, and that the expectation should be for him to continue to do as such.
We made it to game day, Cowboys Nation! Before the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers kickoff, be sure to share your thoughts on the game and this Playoff Primer with a comment below!
You can also catch up on previous editions of this series right here, and find me on Twitter @ShoreSportsNJ to discuss any player breakdowns!
Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.
We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.
- TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
- G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
- DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
- WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
- OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
- DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable
Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.
Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving. Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.
Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.
Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.
While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.
- G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
- LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
- S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
- WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
- TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
- S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable
The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.
Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.
Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.
Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts
Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.
My how things have changed.
Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.
As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.
Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?
By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.
All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.
On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.
Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.
Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.
Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.
In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.
The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.
Big Games from Explosive Duo?
The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.
Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.
Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances
Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.
Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.
They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.
Rookie Linebackers Dominating
We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.
Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.
Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.
Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.
Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.
This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...
Cowboys 24 - Colts 20
Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section.
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