The Dallas Cowboys are one of just a few teams with nothing to play for in week 17, their potential Wild Card opponents not in the same situation. Come Wild Card weekend, either the Seattle Seahawks or Minnesota Vikings will be at AT&T Stadium to face the NFC East champion Cowboys. After covering what a rematch between the Cowboys and Seahawks could look like, it's time to consider the Cowboys match up with a Vikings team fighting for their life on Sunday.
Hosting the winners of the NFC North, the Vikings will need to beat the Bears to play their own way into the postseason. Should the third-seeded Bears pick up their 12th win of the year, the Vikings will need the Eagles to lose (or tie) at the Redskins.
A game away from the Super Bowl a year ago, this season has hardly gone as planned for the Vikings in year one with Kirk Cousins at QB. Yet again, not much has in a crazy division won by the Bears, hardly contested by the Packers and Lions, and on the verge of sending a dangerous Vikings team to the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Minnesota does not feature the same world-beating defense it bolstered a year ago, carrying a Case Keenum quarterbacked offense to the NFC Championship Game. Eleventh in rush yards allowed per game but third in pass yards, the Vikings have not sustained the dominant pass rush that made them a force last season.
Danielle Hunter has turned a seven sack 2017 into a team high 14.5 through 15 games this year, but Everson Griffin has just 5.5 after 13 last year. Where the Vikings have seen progress on defense is in the secondary, with Mack Alexander, Trae Ways, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith forming a tight back seven.
Cousins has not provided the boost at QB the Vikings were hoping could put them over the edge even with a regression on defense, failing to make the difference in losses to the Bills, Bears, and Seahawks. The Vikings have not beaten any team currently in the playoffs and are 3-4-1 on the road.
The Cowboys have hinted at using their remaining game at the Giants as a tune-up for the playoffs by playing "healthy" starters, certainly in need of improvements on offense. They should feel good about returning home for a first round match up with the Vikings, and their own ability to win a defensive game regardless of how they handle week 17.
Winning their last four games against Cousins when he started for the Redskins, the Cowboys should be more concerned with a Vikings running game that's found its legs recently. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray put the Vikings over 100 yards rushing last week against the Lions for the second consecutive week, the first time that's happened all season. The Vikings are 5-0 when rushing for at least 100 yards with an average margin of victory of 15 points.
Shutout loss at the Colts aside, the Cowboys have not yielded 100 rushing yards since a week nine loss to the Titans. This game became the turning point of a season that went from 3-5 to division winners in Dallas.
At times through a five game win streak earlier in the season, the Cowboys looked just like the magical 2016 team that rattled off 13 wins on the way to the top seed in the NFC. Among the accomplishments of that season, despite a first round playoff exit, was a prime time Thursday win in Minnesota.
Holding off a late Vikings two point attempt to win 17-15, the Cowboys gained big game composure with a rookie Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott winning on the road. Practically seasoned veterans with new starters all around them now, the Cowboys line up favorably against a Vikings team that will need outside help claiming the #5 seed.
A Vikings playoff-clinching win paired with a Seahawks loss to the Cardinals would make them the #5 seed and send them to Dallas while Seattle becomes the #6 seed.
As mentioned, the Cowboys must find an extra gear on offense if they have any hope of making a deep playoff run. Leaning on the best defense they've fielded in years hasn't failed them much this season though, and that's exactly how their postseason could begin with a tough game against the Vikings in the Wild Card round.
New faces like Leighton Vander Esch can be eager to face off against Cousins, while the Cowboys familiarity with him on defense is left to DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones, and at least four other starters from the last time the now-Vikings starter lost to the Cowboys.
The Vikings, Eagles, and Seahawks all play late games after the Cowboys noon kickoff at the Giants on Sunday, meaning they'll be in full recovery mode for the playoffs when their opponent is determined.
Cowboys Wishlist: Dress Rehearsal Edition
In the NFL, the third preseason week is often referred to as the "Dress Rehearsal." It's usually the week in which starters get the most playing time. That has changed lately, with plenty of teams deciding to take care of their key players instead of risking them on the field. However, the Dallas Cowboys have played their starters on their first two games and there's no reason to believe that will change versus the Texans today.
Here is my wishlist for the Cowboys vs Texans "Dress Rehearsal!" Let me know what your wishes for tonight's game are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Justin Phillips Locks Up a Roster Spot
Phillips has been one of the most surprising players this offseason and preseason. The Cowboys are set at linebacker, but Phillips has made sure to be a tough guy to cut. Last week, he had a remarkable interception against the Rams. Despite making a first step toward the line, he managed to adjust and made the play. He has followed it up with more plays in practice.
If he keeps it up, the Cowboys won't be able to cut him. He has the potential to be a force on special teams and a quality backup.
Wish #2: Devin Smith Makes Things Interesting
The battle for the final wide receiver spots is at full-go. Devin Smith has shined lately, and has risen as a serious candidate to make the roster. However, it seems like other wide receivers have the upper-hand as of now. Earlier this week, I made my Cowboys WR Power Rankings and had Devin Smith at #7.
His TD catch versus the Rams last week was pretty impressive, and I wish he makes a few more plays to make the debate all the more interesting.
Wish #3: Tony Pollard Does It Again
Fifth-round rookie Tony Pollard
stole was the show last weekend as he racked up 51 total yards (five carries, one catch) and a touchdown on Dallas' first offensive drive. He looked impressive as the starting running back, giving us just what we wanted to see.
While many have advertised him as a gadget player, Pollard proved he can actually be a "standard" RB. He ran between the tackles, showed power, balance and great vision. I'm ready to watch it again, this time versus the Texans.
Wish #4: Taco Charlton Shines Rushing The Passer
Taco Charlton has made a couple of plays in preseason on his third year with the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Rams, he batted down two passes and looked good separating from opposing offensive linemen. Charlton has gotten praise from some analysts during these first two preseason weeks.
But I want to watch some quality pass rush from his part. Right now, the Cowboys' roster counts with some promising players, including rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson. While they're currently below Taco, he must prove he belongs on the roster.
Cowboys’ Tight End Marcus Lucas with Huge Opportunity vs the Houston Texans
With only two preseason games remaining, opportunities to make a statement are growing thin. The Dallas Cowboys have very few spots on the roster available, especially at the tight end position where Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz appear to have the depth chart locked down. The problem is, Jarwin and Schultz have been dealing with injuries and missed the second preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams and probably won't play against the Houston Texans tonight.
Enter Marcus Lucas.
Marcus Lucas hasn't been a member of the Dallas Cowboys for very long, but he's already made an impact.
In his first preseason game with the Dallas Cowboys, Lucas caught four passes on four targets for 20 yards. His receptions went for two, seven, five, and six yards for an average of five yards per reception. He did have a holding penalty that cost the Dallas Cowboys 10 yards on a first down play that didn't go anywhere anyway.
Though Lucas has bounced around NFL practice squads, he's never really found a home. After going undrafted in 2014, Lucas was signed by the Carolina Panthers in May of that year but wasn't able to stick on the 53-man roster and was released and placed on the practice squad. In 2015, he was on the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears practice squads. In 2016, the Panthers brought him back in the summer after the Bears released him from their 90-man roster. That September after cut-down day, the Seattle Seahawks signed Lucas to their practice squad where he spent all of 2016. From 2017 to the end of 2018, Lucas spent time with the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks again, and the San Francisco 49ers. He was with the 49ers in 2019 before joining the Dallas Cowboys about two weeks ago and will get an extended run in these final two preseason games.
At Thursday's practice, Lucas was the only tight end available with Jason Witten getting a rest day and Jarwin, Schultz, and fellow Tight End Cody McElroy dealing with injuries.
With Jason Witten getting a day of rest, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Codey McElroy injured, the Cowboys have one tight end practicing today: Marcus Lucas, who has been with the team for about two weeks.
It's possible that Lucas may get an extended amount of playing time tonight with an opportunity to show the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL that he's ready to land on a 53-man roster. With likely only Jason Witten being the only other tight end active for the game against the Houston Texans, Lucas will get a lot of playing time. If his last preseason exposure is any indication, he'll get the chance to display his receiving prowess.
At 27, Lucas likely has few opportunities left to make his mark for an NFL franchise. On a team that proclaims the "next man up" as a battle cry, after Witten, Lucas is the next man up for tonight and depending on his performance could make the Dallas Cowboys front office or another front office around the league take notice.
Depending on the long-term health of the Dallas Cowboys' tight end position, Lucas may find his path to a roster spot simply dependent upon the health of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Though a job may not come with the Dallas Cowboys, tonight is an extremely important audition for his next suitor. How he performs tonight could land Marcus Lucas a job after the Dallas Cowboys trim the roster to 53 next week.
They say "preseason games don't matter," but to Marcus Lucas, this might be the most important game of his career.
Don’t Forget Special Teams Value in Cowboys Roster Decisions
Building a 53-man roster in the NFL is a complex formula, requiring balance between numerous positions on each side of the ball. But what often gets overlooked in our analysis as outsiders is special teams, and that's a huge factor for many of the Dallas Cowboys players hoping to make it past final cuts.
Some players have survived in the league by being just good enough at their listed positions but excelling in special teams roles. You may think of former Dallas safety Bill Bates, who was personally responsible for a special teams player being made part of the annual Pro Bowl roster. A more recent example would be Keith Davis, who was an adequate safety but a special teams ace for several seasons.
To be sure, someone is going to be on this 2019 Cowboys more for their special teams value than their actual offensive or defensive ability. Who might he, or they, be?
One candidate is veteran Cornerback C.J. Goodwin. He is considered an exceptional talent in coverage on punts, which is probably the only reason he's still in the NFL today. At age 29, Goodwin has never really emerged as a consistent contributor on defense.
Young players like Donovan Olumba or rookie Michael Jackson, if not already superior cornerbacks to Goodwin, have far more upside to keep on the roster. But
considering how little they may get on the field anyway as the fifth or sixth corners, you can see why special teams value becomes so important. It may be the only time you actually see them in the game.
If the Cowboys don't want to lose a young prospect but can't let go of Goodwin's special teams ability, it may prompt them to go long at the CB position. But that means taking a roster spot from some other position, and thus the balancing act continues.
Another player to watch in this discussion is second-year an Running Back Jordan Chunn. He doesn't have Alfred Morris' experience or maybe Mike Weber or Darius Jackson's rushing talent, but he has been showing up on the special teams units.
Yesterday, Cowboys insider Bryan Broaddus called Chunn "a better Rod Smith" in analyzing his chances of making the roster. If you don't recall, Jaylon's older brother was a solid RB but a standout special teams player in his few years with Dallas.
As we just mentioned with the 5th/6th CB slots, the third running back is not a guy you expect to see much on offense. That will be especially true this year as Dallas will be struggling just to give rookie Tony Pollard the touches he deserves as the number-two RB.
Given that, special teams play becomes vital for the value of whoever is behind Zeke and Pollard on the depth chart. If Jordan Chunn is superior to his competition in that regard, it could negate whatever he lacks as an actual running back.
This same conversation can be had throughout the roster. It's why Noah Brown might make the team over more traditionally gifted receivers, or why a certain linebacker or safety might be more valued than others.
We make the common mistake of referring to "both sides of the ball" when we talk about football teams. There are three sides; special teams can't be underestimated. It will certainly play a part in how the Dallas Cowboys finalize their 53-man roster this season and in years to come.
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