The Dallas Cowboys come out of their bye week with a lot of "good problems to have." For example:
- Deciding between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo.
- Finding a role or trade partner for Darren McFadden.
- Not wanting to take CB Anthony Brown off the field.
At 5-1 and with arguably the most momentum of any team in the NFC, the Cowboys don't have much to complain about. However, there is one large problem that could stand in the way of championship aspirations. Unfortunately, it's also a very familiar one.
The Cowboys defense is still one of the worst at rushing the passer. As our last trip to the playoffs proved, this can be a fatal flaw.
Many point to the bad call on Dez Bryant's near-touchdown catch as what cost Dallas their 2014 playoff game in Green Bay. However, the defense's inability to get to Aaron Rodgers was the far larger culprit. Rodgers had clean pockets to work from and carved up the Dallas secondary throughout the game, despite playing with a lower leg injury.
Two weeks ago, the Cowboys again faced Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. The same lack of pressure was there, but they got away with it as Rodgers was having a bad day in an atypically rough season.
It is unlikely that the Cowboys can survive three or four playoff games without pressuring quarterbacks. If they meet Rodgers again, or the likes of Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, those quarterbacks can make plays and counter Dallas' ball-control offense with quick answers and matching touchdowns.
Is 10 games enough time for Dallas to find a solution before the playoffs?
You have to go back to 2011, with Rob Ryan and the 3-4 defense, for a time that Dallas wasn't in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks. DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 that year and was helped by Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher.
Since then, the Cowboys have ranked 20th or worse in sacks every season. The transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 has had mixed reviews, but the glaring negative has been less ability to attack quarterbacks.
Right now the Cowboys have just 11 sacks, a little less than two per game. They are allowing opposing quarterbacks to have an average passer rating of 95.0, another bottom-half number in the NFL. It's especially bad when you consider that Aaron Rodgers is the above-average QB that they've faced so far this season.
These problems are especially frustrating given the many failures in personnel moves. You can't say Dallas hasn't invested in the pass rush. The problem is that they've been risky investments.
The signing of Greg Hardy was the Cowboys' single biggest, and most risky, attempt find improve. Hardy debuted with a bang but quickly went silent, and his personal problems and poor character did far more to hurt the organization than help. He was gone after one year.
Dallas spent their 2014 and 2015 second-round picks on defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Lawrence just recently returned from a PED suspension and Gregory is out until Week 15 for repeated drug violations. Neither is a lost cause, but so far the returns have not been good.
Dallas has even been pass-rush focused with their defensive tackles. They gave Tyrone Crawford a long-term deal on the faith that he would blossom as a disruptive DT under Rod Marinelli. Crawford has yet to be a consistent force and now has one of the worst contracts on the team.
Thought not on the same scale of investment, the Cowboys recently gave Benson Mayowa a solid contract paying roughly $3 million per year despite his limited opportunities with the Oakland Raiders. They thought he could emerge with a larger role, but Mayowa has yet to do so.
The Cowboys' best hope is that DeMarcus Lawrence will come out of the bye week ready to live up to the hype. Lawrence had seven sacks over the final eight games of 2015, but that was with Greg Hardy drawing attention. Lawrence has to emerge as the catalyst now for his teammates.
Dallas' Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals gives some hope for this. Despite not having a sack himself, Lawrence's presence seemed to open things up and allowed the Cowboys to get four sacks on Andy Dalton.
Another possibility for help is a trade. The deadline is next Tuesday and the Cowboys have a piece in Darren McFadden that some RB-needy teams could be interested in. They also could look at moving tight end Gavin Escobar, another former second-round pick, if there's a team that still remembers him fondly from the 2013 draft.
Even if teams don't want these players, future draft picks could also be moved. The Cowboys could look to bring in a quality, veteran pass rusher from a struggling team for a 2017 pick. With championship potential now very much in the conversation, the Cowboys wouldn't be foolish for pulling from these future assets.
The worst thing the team could do is get complacent about their pass rushing issues because of current success. The 2014 Dallas Cowboys were 12-4 and went into the playoffs with plenty of hope and confidence, only to get tossed out two weeks later.
The 2016 Cowboys are on a similar trajectory; pushing for the postseason while overcoming a critical flaw. But even if it doesn't come until facing Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl, the lack of pass rush could easily prove fatal once again.
"Dak Prescott or Tony Romo" may be the team's biggest question right now, but either answer is a positive. Still, even if Romo comes back and plays at his MVP-level best, or if Prescott continues to grow and put together one of the great rookie seasons of all time, it could all be for nothing.
There's no question about it; Dallas has a big problem on defense. If they don't fix it, arguing about which QB could take us to the Super Bowl may be a moot point.
WR Randall Cobb Named Cowboys “Surprise Standout” for Offseason
NFL teams have wrapped up their offseason activities with the close of OTAs, especially where the players are concerned, and await the start of training camps next month. In reviewing the last few months, ESPN had their local reporters each pick a surprise standout from their team's practices. Todd Archer, who covers the Dallas Cowboys full time, selected veteran receiver Randall Cobb.
Cobb is in his first season with Dallas after signing as a free agent last March. He's spent the last eight years with the Green Bay Packers and was a Pro Bowler in 2014, but has struggled with injuries the last few seasons.
Here were Archer's observations on how Randall is doing so far with the Cowboys:
Normally a player with Cobb's résumé -- 470 catches for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns during his career -- would not be considered for a category like this. But injuries limited him to only nine games and 38 catches for Green Bay in 2018, and it was hard to know what the Cowboys were getting in the veteran receiver.
If the offseason work is any indication, they have found a replacement for Cole Beasley. Cobb's versatility can expand the offense for others, such as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb looked quick in and out of his breaks and fast enough to make plays down the field. Will he put up the 1,287 yards he had in 2014? No, but he gives Dak Prescott a security blanket in the slot who can turn a small gain into a big one.
The notion of Cobb replacing Beasley is a big one. While we'd like to think that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup will provide plenty of firepower for the Cowboys offense, Dak Prescott has enjoyed a reliable threat from the slot position since he arrived.
Randall Cobb, when healthy, can do more than just make clutch catches. He has good run-after-catch skills and perhaps bring more big play potential than Beasley did.
If Cooper and Gallup do emerge as a dangerous starting duo on the outside, Cobb should have even more opportunities to punish defenses than Beasley did.
If nothing else, it's very encouraging to hear that one of the Cowboys' few 2019 free agent moves is already reaping benefits. Cobb still needs to bring it over a full season to really justify the move, but these early reports are cause for excitement.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
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