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Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Linebackers

Sean Martin

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Damien Wilson

If you're sick of hearing about how the Cowboys season is destined to end at the hands of Aaron Rodgers this Sunday in the Divisional Round, you have come to the right place.

This is Playoff Primer, and after spending the bye week breaking down the offense, we will shift over to the defense now to actually talk about how Dallas matches up with Green Bay's offense. Stunning, right? 

Let's get started and talk about Rod Marinelli's linebackers.

Sean Lee

Sean LeeSean Lee has never played in the postseason for the Dallas Cowboys, but his much-anticipated debut will come at the perfect time. Lee had 13 tackles against the Packers on the road this season, and has stayed healthy throughout 2016 at the WILL linebacker position.

While Lee may not make as many game changing plays at this weak side spot compared to his days at MIKE linebacker, "The General" is still a tackle machine that is going to be relied on to keep this team focused defensively in the playoffs on every snap.

At this point, the Cowboys' defensive line is what it is, and their middle-of-the-road play puts a lot of pressure at times on the second-level linebackers. In this match up with the Packers specifically, Green Bay will look to establish a running game that has received a spark from Christine Michael.

It will be up to Lee to be the sideline to sideline player that we know him to be in order to force Aaron Rodgers into obvious passing situations, where Dallas' "clog and cover" scheme can be deployed in full effect.

Sean Lee means so much to the Dallas Cowboys, and Cowboys Nation knows that nobody will want to succeed in the playoffs more than Lee in his first appearance.

Anthony Hitchens

Entering his third season in 2016, expectations were high for Anthony Hitchens to step up in a big way as the starting MIKE linebacker. While it hasn't exactly worked out, and Hitchens has faced plenty of criticism for some mental lapses on plays at times, the Iowa product does have a new career high in tackles with 78.

Is Anthony Hitchens' spot on this defense one that can be upgraded? Absolutely - and that upgrade is hopefully on the roster in the form of Jaylon Smith. For now, Rod Marinelli can hope to get Hitchens playing physical and downhill, which is when he is at his best finding the football.

When Hitchens struggles, it is typically because he loses his awareness and positioning, which in turn takes away his ability to be a hard-hitting run stopper. Look for the Packers to try to force Hitchens to do a lot of different things both as a run and pass defender in this game.

Damien Wilson

Ever since being drafted by the Cowboys in 2015, Damien Wilson has been one of my "pet cats". As a paintball player, I even defended him through his bizarre 2016 training camp injury that nearly made him a forgotten man.

Now, after never seeing the field again following that overtime loss in New Orleans his rookie season, Wilson is the Cowboys' starter at SAM linebacker - and a very solid one at that.

Playing a position that often comes off the field when Dallas plays in "Nickel" and "Dime" packages, Wilson has earned his playing time over veteran options at strong side linebacker like Kyle Wilber and Andrew Gachkar.

Although his role may be smaller compared to the other linebackers on this team, Wilson rarely goes unnoticed, rallying to the ball with his speed and surprising block-shedding ability.

Wilson can play as a down the line type of player with a good center of gravity and burst. #57 is definitely a player to keep an eye on against Green Bay, and throughout the postseason.

Justin Durant

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Durant

Back for his second stint with the Dallas Cowboys, Durant has been about everything the team expected when they added him for depth this summer. On the field for just an average of 31% of defensive snaps, Durant has a veteran knack for making huge tackles at the most opportune times.

Unfortunately, Durant has not been on the field as often as he could have hoped, missing the final two weeks of the regular season and leaving his playoff status up in the air. If he has any chance of getting back on the field, expect him to do so, and to continue to find ways to put himself in position to make plays.

Mark Nzeocha

The Cowboys have obviously responded on defense without the services of Mark Nzeocha for much of this season, but the physical MIKE type linebacker returned against the Eagles to play 16 snaps in week 17.

Nzeocha may be a better fit at the middle linebacker spot than Anthony Hitchens, but with Hitchens getting all of the reps throughout the season, I expect Mark Nzeocha's role to be relatively limited in these playoffs.

As far as depth goes though, if Nzeocha is needed, he is not a bad option at all to patrol the middle of the field in Marinelli's defense.


I hope you enjoyed this first edition of Playoff Primer on the defensive side of the ball. Click here to catch up on previous editions of the series!

Tell us what you think about "Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Linebackers" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

Player News

MRI Negative on Cowboys G Zack Martin’s Knee Injury

Jess Haynie

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Zack Martin

The Dallas Cowboys saw a few guys go down in last night's preseason game, but none scarier than All-Pro guard Zack Martin. Thankfully, they got some good news today on Martin's status.

An MRI of the knee showed no major injury, and that means Zack should be good to go for the team's regular season opener in three weeks.

David Moore on Twitter

Cowboys have received results of Zack Martin's MRI & it's encouraging. Source said there's no significant injury to left knee & he could be ready for opener against Carolina on Sept. 9.

Last week, Dallas lost one of their likely reserve guards when Marcus Martin went on injured reserve after the first preseason game. That leaves just Joe Looney as the only trusted reserve right now for the interior line.

But even though Looney has played well at times when called upon, he's no Zack Martin. In fact, only a couple of guys in the entire NFL can claim to be on that level.

Sprains and other non-major injuries to the knee tend to fall into the 2-4 week range for recovery. Barring complications, Martin should be ready to take on the Panthers' Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, and others.

We're still waiting for updates on other key players who were injured last night, such as Safety Xavier Woods, Running Back Bo Scarbrough, and Defensive Lineman Datone Jones. We'll get those to you as they are announced.

Hopefully, they all get the same good news that Zack Martin did today.



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Player News

Zack Martin, Xavier Woods Suffer Preseason Injuries, Cowboys Down 2 Starters

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Cowboys' Eyeing Training Camp To Extend Zack Martin's Contract

Last Saturday night didn't end well for the Dallas Cowboys, who saw multiple players go down throughout the game, most notably Zack Martin and Xavier Woods. Preseason injuries are always the more painful ones, and when we're talking about someone like Martin, it just makes it worse.

Martin suffered a knee injury and was ruled out after going down. ESPN's Todd Archer tweeted out that a source had claimed the injury was a hyper-extended left knee. This surely would be great news considering the fear right now is a season-ending injury.

Todd Archer on Twitter

A source said the initial diagnosis of Zack Martin is a hyperextended left knee, but he will undergo an MRI on Sunday. The Cowboys do not practice again until Monday and play Aug. 26 against the Arizona Cardinals. Depending on the severity of the... https://t.co/1MPbJfQph8

Zack is set to have an MRI on Sunday and the team is hopeful the injury isn't that serious. We probably won't see the All-Pro left guard return in the preseason but could see him back on the field as soon as September 9th when the Cowboys kick their season off at Carolina.

Besides Zack Martin being the best offensive guard in the NFL, the Cowboys' offensive line depth is definitely not good. If his injury proves to be worse than what the front office believes, this offense will have to play without arguably their best player.

As we nervously await more news on Martin's knee, there are more injured players to talk about.

Xavier Woods injured his hamstring as he made an effort to intercept the ball and was also ruled out for the game. We still don't know about the severity, but we do know it's the same hamstring that he dealt with last year.

Although Woods isn't anywhere near Zack Martin as a football player, his injury comes at the team's weakest position in depth. Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods are the Cowboys' only legitimate safeties that will earn a roster spot.

If the hamstring injury is serious enough to keep him sidelined for multiple weeks, we could see the Cowboys getting outside help for the defensive backfield. Whether that means trading for Earl Thomas, some other safety or looking at the free agents available, I don't see the team going into the season with two safeties on the roster.

For now, we need to wait for more results regarding both of these players who will be detrimental to this team's success in 2018. The Cowboys suffered more injuries than these ones, though.

Saad Yousuf on Twitter

And the injuries continue... Jameill Showers is down on the Cowboys sideline with what looks like a knee injury. Still down. Duke Thomas Datone Jones Bo Scarbrough Xavier Woods and the big one, Zack Martin That's the injury list for the Cowboys tonight.

Datone Jones has been impressive during his stay in Dallas and is a quality DT and was ruled out for the game after getting tangled up with the Bengal's offensive line. Seventh-round draft pick Bo Scarbrough suffered a hip injury and is apparently not severe either.

Compared to Woods' and Martin's injuries, these ones won't keep Cowboys' fans up at night. However, hopefully they all turn out to be okay and ready to play as soon as possible. The team's starters make this team a legit threat in the NFC, but when it comes to depth, they're not in a good position.

Tell me what you think about "Zack Martin, Xavier Woods Suffer Preseason Injuries, Cowboys Down 2 Starters" in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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Game Notes

Sean’s Scout: Starting Front 7 Sets Tone Early, Cowboys Depth Falters in Loss to Bengals

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: Starting Front 7 Sets Tone Early, Cowboys Depth Falters in Loss to Bengals
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

The Dallas Cowboys are halfway through their 2018 preseason. Given the injuries they're left to deal with to Zack Martin, Xavier Woods, and Jameill Showers, the Cowboys were happy to see their first home game of the season come to an end when it did. Despite the 21-13 loss, the Cowboys starters made another strong impression before exiting for backups that once again failed to hold the lead.

This is a game I'm looking forward to getting another look at on film, but for now here are a few thoughts the first time through.

  • Rookie Connor Williams is still a work in progress at guard, as he'll get himself in trouble trying to catch rushers too often. 

This "catch blocking" is not uncommon for young offensive linemen, particularly ones learning a new position in preparation to start on the league's best front. On the Cowboys second drive of the game, Williams was caught back in his stance dealing with a twist from the Bengals with Left Tackle Tyron Smith.

The result of the play was an incomplete pass on third down from Dak Prescott. With Williams' footwork being as consistent as it has, I wouldn't worry too much about his upper body technique and strength improving greatly before week one of the regular season. Perhaps most importantly, Williams has looked smooth playing in space, something the Cowboys are prepared to ask the second round pick to do plenty of.

  • With Randy Gregory back in the lineup, the Cowboys potential to have a great rotation of defensive ends was on full display. 

The play that stands out is a tackle for loss by Safety Jeff Heath. On the play, Defensive End Tyrone Crawford did a great job setting the edge against the run, allowing Heath to come down and make the aggressive play.

Crawford created penetration against a tight end, staying disciplined in his rush lane from the right defensive end position to force the run outside.

On the Bengals' offensive series prior to this play by Heath, the Cowboys forced a punt following a missed Andy Dalton throw to A.J. Green. Despite not being tight in coverage on third down, Randy Gregory looked sharp coming off the edge to rush Dalton slightly.

With Taco Charlton also looking strong against the run, and rookie Dorance Armstrong continuing to develop as a weak side pass rusher, the possible match ups the Cowboys can create up front are seemingly endless.

Almost all of them will include last year's sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence, who was also disruptive on nearly every snap in this game.

  • Give credit to Joe Looney for handling the reps he did at center, but the backup interior lineman left a lot to be desired from this position. 

It should come as no surprise that Looney is a better guard than center, or that the Cowboys would look significantly worse at center without Travis Frederick in the lineup.

Overall, this was a disappointing game for the Cowboys thin offensive line depth. Paul Alexander's unit was unable to give quarterbacks Cooper Rush and Mike White a fair chance to settle into the game.

Looney's contact balance was suspect throughout the evening. Not the most powerful player, it's important for Looney to play with leverage and balance, which he did inconsistently last night.

Awaiting news on Zack Martin's first quarter injury still, the Cowboys should have already been concerned about their backups at tackle, with the guard position becoming a late concern now.

  • This is becoming the standard for Jaylon Smith, but I did not see one Bengals blocker effectively slow him down.

The power that Smith is playing with is an outstanding sign for continued success. Not only is Smith physically up for the challenge of starting at MIKE for the Cowboys, but he's physically dominating opponents with strength, speed, and range.

Whether he was running laterally and avoiding blocks with great awareness, or attacking the pocket, Smith's path to the ball was rarely impeded against the Bengals.

No matter who the Cowboys lined up in their front seven, the group did a great job setting a strong tone. Antwaun Woods was once again impressive at the one technique position inside, and Brian Price made a flash play from this position late in the game as well.

Thanks to Smith's gap shooting ability, and the Cowboys willingness so far this preseason to be creative with the Notre Dame product, the team's defensive tackles don't have to be asked to do too much. Holding their spots while drawing blockers will be more than enough to free Smith and the rest of the Cowboys linebackers to make plays.

Sean's Scout: Starting Front 7 Sets Tone Early, Cowboys Depth Falters in Loss to Bengals 1

Dallas Cowboys CBs Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

  • Chidobe Awuzie's interception in the second quarter is a reminder of just how high the second-year cornerback's potential is. 

Sure, Awuzie's length put him at an advantage to take a leap into year two once Kris Richard arrived as the Cowboys passing game coordinator.

Being productive on the ball, as Awuzie was here, is a testament to just how athletic he is as a boundary cornerback though. A beat late recognizing the ball coming his way, Awuzie remained in perfect position to get a hand on this pass.

Doing so with an explosive leap off the ground and full extension, Awuzie snagged the ball with one hand before bringing it into his body to secure another turnover for the Cowboys first team defense.

The Cowboys cornerback depth proved suspect beyond Awuzie and Byron Jones in this game, but being as good as they already are on the boundary is a huge step in the right direction for Rod Marinelli's defense.

I also thought that UDFA Tyree Robinson did a great job answering the bell at safety, showing up a number of times in run support with the Cowboys in desperate need of depth at his position.

It's in the slot, where Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis continue to feel the pressure of competition, that the Cowboys are struggling to find the right starter - even trying Lewis on the outside well into the fourth quarter of this game.

 ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Cowboys will remain in their home state to conclude their training camp and preseason. Needing to see more out of their second and third team, practices will resume at The Star on Monday before another preseason game at AT&T Stadium.

This time, it will be the Arizona Cardinals coming in for a Sunday Night Football tune up. The Cowboys starters could very well see even more playing time than they have through the first two weeks, giving them a better chance of sustaining success and coming away with a preseason win.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: Starting Front 7 Sets Tone Early, Cowboys Depth Falters in Loss to Bengals" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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