The Dallas Cowboys, winners of the NFC East for the second time in three seasons, are locked into the fourth seed in the upcoming NFC playoffs. All that stands between the Cowboys and a home playoff game at AT&T Stadium is a meaningless trip to the New York Giants in week 17. Though the Cowboys have nothing to play for, their potential playoff opponents do, as the fifth seed is yet to be determined between the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings.
Prior to Sunday, I'll share my thoughts here on the Cowboys match up with both teams. With the Seahawks controlling their own path towards the fifth seed, having beaten Dallas already this year back in week three, it makes the most sense to start here - nearly where this season began considering the driving force of this offseason was the status of Earl Thomas, connecting these two teams for months on end.
Thomas has of course not been a factor for the Seahawks revamped defense ever since week four, fracturing his lower leg at the Cardinals and being placed on injured reserve. In his last game of the season, and potentially final time in a Seahawks uniform, Thomas totaled seven tackles and intercepted Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott twice.
Providing quite the statement as to why the Cowboys could use his services, both teams have made strides to recover from losing records early in the year and assure a playoff berth. The Seahawks improved their home record to 5-2 last week with a prime time win over the Kansas City Chiefs, putting Pete Carroll's team in the postseason for the seventh time in his nine years.
Even with something to play for in the final game of the season, Seattle extended Carroll with a new contract through 2021 on Monday. The Seahawks confidence in their coach, winner of five of his last six games, feels primed to pay off in the playoffs again.
Whether or not the same can be said about Jason Garrett's Cowboys, considered one of the hottest teams in the league amidst a five game win streak that was snapped two weeks ago, is the burning question this holiday season for Cowboys Nation.
The Cowboys have not shied away from resting their starters in situations just like the one they'll enter this Sunday. This leaves the Cowboys sample size for the playoffs a 27-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to clinch the NFC East on home turf.
Considering their performance was in response to a shutout loss, the Cowboys did more than enough on Sunday against Tampa, but left continued doubts on offense that the Seahawks are still primed to exploit as they did earlier in the season.
Well before the Cowboys even realized a presence like Amari Cooper was needed at wide receiver, they turned the football over three times, twice in Seahawks territory, losing 24-13 to fall to 1-2. Tight End Geoff Swaim was the Cowboys leading receiver in this game with five catches. Running Back Ezekiel Elliott saw his second lowest share of carries on the season, producing 127 yards on just 16 touches.
In games at Carolina and Washington, where Elliott had a total of 30 carries with 15 in each loss, he rushed for a combined 102 yards. Learning to feed Elliott and throw the ball to Cooper (something the Cowboys have struggled to do as of late) are far from the only reasons to like their chances in a rematch vs. the Seahawks as a much improved team.
The Seahawks patchwork secondary has yielded the 20th most passing yards in the league this season. The Cowboys receivers have taken the most obvious strides needed to create this favorable match up in the Wild Card Round, but the same can quietly be said about the Dallas defense from week three until now.
The Cowboys never led in their loss at CenturyLink Field, something they'll desperately need to play against at AT&T Stadium to keep the crowd in their favor.
The Cowboys defense actually got off the field in a total of just 12 plays following the three turnovers by the offense, ultimately limiting the chances they had to get back in the game to the point of no return by late in the fourth quarter.
Russell Wilson is playing like a MVP caliber quarterback lately. Rising to the occasion are the likes of Randy Gregory, Byron Jones, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith on defense for the Cowboys at the right time. Kris Richard's group is equipped to contain Wilson and stymie the Seahawks running game, which did break out for 210 yards on the ground against the Chiefs in week 16.
Chris Carson became the first of just two running backs to go for 100 or more yards against the Cowboys this season, doing so in a game the Cowboys defense was on the field for 32:44 minutes - the third highest total of the season from a non-overtime game. Their most recent win being the exception, the only time the Cowboys defense was left on the field longer was in another ugly loss to the Titans off Dallas' bye week.
Scoring themselves on defense thanks to Jaylon Smith and cashing in another quick score on Gregory's second fumble recovery is the reason the Cowboys overcame this stat so easily on Sunday. In a possible playoff match up with the Seahawks, it will take a similar opportunistic swing on defense to turn the game in the home team's favor.
It was the Indianapolis Colts' familiarity with the Cowboys offense thanks to Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus that prompted the latest uncertainty for Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to once again have the keys to the Cowboys offense in a playoff game.
Regardless of who the Cowboys play, with Mike Zimmer and the Vikings being the only alternative to the Seahawks, this will remain a concern through week 17 and straight into Wild Card weekend. Cleaning up an uncharacteristic Elliott fumble and trusting the growth that Cooper and Michael Gallup have made on offense since the Cowboys first meeting with Seattle is still certainly achievable for Linehan's offense.
The Cowboys proved they have all the makings of a Super Bowl team during their November/early December win streak, and proved to themselves the work needed to get there in week three. With the playoffs being a new season entirely, figuring out which Cowboys and Seahawks teams will truly show up to advance their season to the NFC Championship game is going to be a heated debate with more than enough story lines to cover the time between now and then.
If it happens, this would be the third meeting between these teams in the last two years, with the Seahawks winning both going back to last year's road win - eliminating the Cowboys from playoff contention.
The Seahawks officially earn the #5 seed in the conference with a win vs. the Cardinals on Sunday.
LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys
In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.
Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…
"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."
Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:
The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.
If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).
As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.
Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?
How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster
Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.
While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.
The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.
Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.
So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.
In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.
But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.
Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.
When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.
No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.
We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.
That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.
This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.
But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.
DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win
Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.
Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.
As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.
Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.
Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.
A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.
Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.
"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli
Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.
Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.
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